SXSW 2012: Tanlines anchor a night of revelations
When Tanlines' Jesse Cohen told South by Southwest attendees Friday night that his Brooklyn's band's debut album would be out on Tuesday, he wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding. "America Tuesday," he emphasized. Like the annual music festival and conference in Austin, Texas, Tanlines takes a global approach.
The five-day mix of industry powwows and musical revelry is entering its homestretch. Only one full day remains, and Friday in Austin brought another injection of star power. Eminem appeared at the showcase for his Shady Records, and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Rooney Mara was in town filming scenes for her Terrence Malick-directed "Lawless." Among other performances, the director and star were seen shooting during an afternoon performance by Cults.
Rock stars and movie starlets may deflect some attention, yet SXSW's core mission of exposing the industry and media to artists from around the globe remains. Tanlines were born and bred right here in the U.S. of A, but the duo of keyboardist/percussionist Cohen and guitarist/singer Eric Emm take recent rock and dance trends and blow them out to incorporate influences from the world over.
The songs performed Friday, largely from the duo's debut for Matador-affiliated True Panther Sounds, "Mixed Emotions," gradually grew in sound and scope. The synth-aided beats of "Yes Way" clattered as if they were fashioned out of wooden sticks and planks, a globe-trotting beat that had the groove of LCD Soundsystem and the international step of Yeasayer.
But forget the aural reference points. These were songs about escape and finding oneself -- often in the same verse. Emm, who vaguely resembles a young Michael Richards, added guitar textures that softened the rhythms and gave Tanlines a more organic feel. Vocals were carefully articulated, and Emm's sharp lines are delivered with a squint, as if he were preparing himself for a negative reaction.
"Pardon me for asking," Emm sang in the lead-up to a blissful chorus in "All of Me," and on set closer "Real Life" he sang each line as he was pointing over his shoulder. Cohen's programmed beats touched ever-so-slightly on a steel drum sound, but the island stomp was soon buried in a rush of clacks, scratches and Old World accents. "My destination was unknown," Emm sang, but the group seemed committed to the journey, backpacking through its influences.
While Tanlines' influences may cross borders, Sub Pop went to South Africa to find rapper Spoek Mathambo. He has an eerie, spacey, computer-manipulated album in "Father Creeper." It's a work of digital warfare, and translating it live would be no easy task. Mathambo didn't so much attempt to do so, and used a live band, boosted by a saxophone, that focused on the aggression in the album rather than its intergalactic nuances.
New Merge Records act Hospitality, meanwhile, was another SXSW revelation. Amber Papini isn't an extravagant singer, and instead acts as an anchor for songs that unfold like symphonic daydreams. With a standard guitar, bass, drum and keyboard setup, Hospitality creates rather elaborate arrangements. Whether it's a rhythm section groove that appears to be skipping circles around Papini, or guitars and keyboards that ebb and twist around her like carnival mirrors, compositions seem to act out the images in her head.
Equally impressive was the metropolitan pop of Chicago's Wild Belle. Singer Natalie Bergman has a can't-put-one-over-on-me husk, and she marches to and fro with the microphone between verses, appearing coolly dapper as she puts a realist spin on adult relationships.
There's touches of the blues and dips into reggae, but mentioning those genres runs the risk of giving the wrong impression. Wild Belle works a mood -- guitars are used so sparingly that when a few notes are struck it's memorable -- and keyboard trickles in to give the act an technological sheen. "I'm just another girl," Bergman tried to claim in one song, but here's betting she's not anonymous for long.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Jesse Cohen, left, and Eric Emm of Tanlines. Credit: Press Here Publicity