SXSW 2011: Get to know EMA; Ellie Goulding, Joy Formidable impress
To put it in broad terms, there are essentially two ways to tackle the annual South by Southwest festival and conference. One can spend the time in Austin, Texas, stressed over how to navigate 2,000 bands, a multitude of day parties and industry panels. Or one can just let the schedule go by the wayside, as things go as planned in Austin about as often as a showcasing band has time to do a proper soundcheck.
Plenty wasn't working right during EMA's Wednesday night set. Yet the lack of working stage monitors didn't derail Erika Anderson's solo project. She did what any self-respecting SXSW performer would and didn't let sound issues slow down or delay her set. After all, there's a little bit of punk rock at the heart of Anderson's songs, which give what could have been folksy confessionals a more aggressive framework.
While EMA hasn't released its debut full-length yet, some adventurous Los Angeles music fans may be familiar with Anderson. Her first band, Gowns, did some time in the Southland, and Anderson has performed with the long-running experimental outfit Amps for Christ. As EMA, Anderson takes a more conventional song-based structure and then adds and strips away with a multitude of sounds -- a scraping fiddle, background tape hiss, sharp and minimalist guitar strikes, and a sampling of electronics.
Songs may start low-key, but just when one thinks Anderson is going soft, momentum gradually builds into a more rapacious release. And Anderson knows her music history as well. In Austin, she performed an abbreviated version of her take on Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman" -- the blues reshaped into a slow-burning rock song, complete with curt, effects-laden guitar notes.
"I have a 17-minute version of that song," Anderson told a small but appreciative crowd. "It's all feedback. Feedback is beautiful, right?" In Anderson's hands, no doubt.
Other notes from Night 2 of SXSW:
So the name stinks: Walking into a showcase to catch Michigan's Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., a bouncer would politely inform those in line that the performing act was not, in fact, a son of the race car driver. One can't fault a few fans for asking, but a song or two into the set and one will soon forget the silly name. The trio's genre-mixing sound is rooted in multi-part harmonies, and melds rootsy frames with downbeat hip-hop additions. Not to throw around references, but the band at times felt like a Midwest version of the Beta Band, with its members dressed for NASCAR and songs that reference the act's home state. Sound experiments are explored, such as singing into a telephone handset that's strapped to a microphone, but they're all used to add to the dusty atmospheres. The crowd loved a cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," and although my reaction was mixed to their take on the classic, there was no denying that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. had the harmonies to pull off a respectable rendition.
HYPE! One can spend much of SXSW simply chasing the acts that come to town with a trail of Web-fueled hype. Wednesday night featured electronic softie James Blake and Chicago rock romantics the Smith Westerns. Having seen and been impressed with the latter, and skeptical that the mellow Blake could carry the giant outdoor amphitheater that is Stubb's, I settled with two other buzz acts for the day.
In the afternoon, Britain's the Vaccines performed in front of a church, and gave some modern energy to Buddy Holly-influenced songs. Already, the Vaccines seemed radio-primed, if the hit-driven radio-era were still upon us. The Vaccines were comfortable at slowing things down, but only flirted with a ballad or two, as getting to the chorus is the act's strength. Granted, the act's influences are firmly rooted in the '50s and '60s -- one song traced the melodic line of the Beatles' "Should Have Known Better" -- but the Vaccines won't disappoint anyone in need of some tunes worthy of rolling the car windows down.
Welsh act the Joy Formidable is more dynamic, wrapping near-metal-edged guitars with electronics. Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan is a commanding presence, as she sings as if she's always on high alert. When the band drops the roar to allow more space into its tunes, Bryan almost looks suspicious, jerking her neck to the left and right with each refrain as if she's waiting for the noise to envelope her. Such moments bring some much-needed tension to the act's set, and transform the Joy Formidable into the rare band that uses loudness as something of a release. The band's knack for production at times recalled the more recent work of Metric, and lesser songs rehashed the '90s alt-rock era. Yet there weren't many of the latter, or if there were, the act's anthemic builds kept one from noticing.
But wait, there's more! There were a few other acts Wednesday worth mentioning, but things will get brief here due to a packed Thursday SXSW schedule (a full wrap will appear on Pop & Hiss on Sunday). Late in the night, I caught most of Ellie Goulding's set, and the British dance-pop star can easily win over a crowd. The few studio songs I had heard hadn't totally wowed me, but live, with a pair of synths offering textures and a live drummer providing a kick, Goulding's likable personality seemed to be given more lift. Vocally, Goulding wouldn't be out of place on Lilith Fair, and it gave her a dash of sweetness that set her apart from much of club-pop.
My night ended at 2 a.m. with Mexico's Chikita Violenta, and I wouldn't mind catching them again, as the act is deserved of an audience with more energy than one has after a 19-hour day of running around Austin. Chikita Violenta is well-versed in American indie-rock, but not many are as rhythmically centered, and the set carried a fluidity that allowed songs to easily shape-shift into one another. With a pair of vocalists, each with drastically different tones, the effect wasn't so much as a call-and-response as a sort of pop tug of war.
-- Todd Martens in Austin, Texas
Upper photo: EMA at SXSW. Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: Ellie Goulding performs at the festival. Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times