SXSW Day 3: The XX keep it minimal, Best Coast stays scruffy and Marina lands in the U.S.
It was past 12:30 a.m. when London's the XX took the stage on the third night of music showcases at South by Southwest. But no matter, this was music built for late-night listening.
The XX do a lot with very little, and the three-piece made a minimalistic statement with last year's self-titled debut. The band was coming to SXSW as an act on the rise. The XX have a date at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival next month, and recent licensing scores have of late pushed the album up the chart.
On record, the XX are at times a bit stark, marrying just a few upper register guitar notes with rather deep bass notes. It's a simple contrast, but one the XX use to great effect. It's never difficult listening, as it's tied together sleek electronic rhythms. These are songs that could double as sci-fi soundscapes, and the back-and-forth vocals of Romy Madley and Oliver Sim are coolly distant, all while the lyrics probe the depths of a brokenhearted soul.
Live, the band faithfully re-created the sounds on the record, but also gave a performance that was oddly mesmerizing. Sim is an imposing presence on stage, carrying a voice like Vincent Price and a bass playing style that sort of hovers over the instrument like a vulture pecking at its prey. He moves as if in slow motion, hovering during "Infinity" from the front of the stage to the lone cymbal that sat atop Jamie Smith's electronic equipment as if possessed by some otherworldly force.
Smith himself is an impressive DJ artist to watch, moving between two tables and conjuring up alarming rhythmic quakes with extra emphasis. Madley, wearing a Lady Gaga tour shirt, delivered the lyrics in a hushed, sometimes matter-of-fact tone, and her guitar work stretched one or two notes into a bare yet memorable framework for the songs.While not pop melodies in the traditional sense, the XX's gentle repetitive calming sounds were the perfect tonic for the third night in Austin came to a close.
Other notes from Day 3 of SXSW:
Best dressed: Rising U.K. pop act Marina and the Diamonds have a solid single in "Hollywood," the latest in a long line of British pop songs that poke fun at American consumerism. When she performed the cut at the so-called Fader Fort, a four-day party loaded with corporate sponsors and a massive denim gift shop, courtesy of the Fort's sponsor Levi's, one couldn't really argue with her. Her album hits the U.S. shores in late May, and it's danceable, clever pop with plenty of big choruses. Think of it as splitting the difference between Lily Allen and Katy Perry. But she gets added points for forgoing any typical pop star trappings and instead sporting baggy Mickey Mouse overalls.
That would be our coast: Indie-focused Webzine Pitchfork hosts one of Austin's most trafficked day parties, and 2010 was no different. I waited an hour to get inside, and arrived just in time to hear locals the Best Coast, who had been earning praise from fest-goers throughout the week. The three-piece are definitely a good time, packing thick, retro bass and drum lines that could have been ripped from '60s girl groups, and then speeding it all up for scruffy, Ramones-inspired power pop. It's a proven winning formula when it works, and work it does on humorous, peppy anthems such as "Wish He Was You."
Frantic & desperate: Scotland five-piece Broken Records have an array of anthems seemingly designed for fighting off last call. These are hectic barroom brawlers, complete with accordions and violins. Some songs begin with more baroque stylings, but they tend to rev up before too long. "I think everyone in the band wants to go off and have a beer," lead singer Jamie Sutherland said before introducing the set's last song at a Friday, and then proceeded to howl through the cut at a hurried pace.
Yes, she seemed a little weird, but ... Sweden's jj compose grand electronic orchestrations. A duo of Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander (if Benon was in Austin, he stayed behind the scenes), the set started with a pair of short, somber, acoustic guitar songs. Then Kastlander dumped the guitar and the set took off, with the singer's lovely voice graced with hypnotic, ambient digital sounds, many of them with a worldly bent. One song bled into the next, creating a trance-like feel to the performance, which seemed to conclude too soon. When the set ended, she bolted before the music was over, and then had a tape loop tell the audience to "get out of here." Coming into the Friday night showcase, I had heard an equal number of rants and raves toward jj. I fell into the positive camp, but Kastlander is admittedly an artist for whom a setting can go a long way. Sitting on stage in a chair, beyond singing she's largely motionless, and there's no speaking to the crowd. I was lucky enough to see jj perform in a church, and after four days now of running around Austin (four days, one meal), I was eager to sit back and simply get lost in the images that screened above the artist.
Top photo: The XX. Credit: Jack Plunkett
Middle photo: Marina and the Diamonds. Credit: Todd Martens