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SXSW 2012: Sub Pop's THEESatisfaction keep it personal

March 16, 2012 |  7:30 am

THEESatisfaction: Click for full South by Southwest coverage

The little guys were definitely overshadowed on night three of the South by Southwest festival and conference. With the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Snoop Dogg, the Shins and Lil Wayne invading Austin, Texas, walking down club-lined Sixth Street felt at times like venturing from opening act to opening act. With 2,000 bands spread among 92 clubs, the odds of graduating to a higher level seemed slim, yet those who opted to dedicate a night to the lesser known were still likely to find acts worth championing. 

Sub Pop newcomers THEESatisfaction, for instance, were hip-hop at its most intimate. Watching the young duo of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White had the feel of stepping into a basement show. But the important ingredients were all there, and the pair join Shabazz Palaces to give Sub Pop a small but impressive roster of adventurous hip-hop acts. 

THEESatisfaction songs are short, glitchy fragments of deeply personal thoughts. When the act raps and sings about sexual confusion or deep depression, the songs unfold like diary entries, but abruptly cut off before the listener gets too close. Hidden beneath the computer manipulations are familiar, time-tested sounds. If they wanted, Irons and Harris-White could respectfully tackle a Jackson 5 song. Instead, they let their voices bleed into each other -- one word gives way to a rap while another becomes a whispery R&B groove.

PHOTOS: South by Southwest

Not all I saw on Thursday was as impressive, and there were moments, especially as I watched the excited reactions on social media from friends who were bragging of each new guest at Springsteen's show (my colleague Randall Roberts was tackling The Boss), that the feeling of being in the wrong place became heightened. High hopes, for instance, were had for a rare appearance from Cardinal, the much-cherished orchestral pop pairing of Richard Davies and Eric Mathews.

The pair's self-titled 1994 album is a gorgeous collection of meticulously crafted pop songs. Yet the SXSW show forced listeners to use their imagination. Mathews doesn't tour, and without him, the pillow-comfort harmonies are lost. What's more, Davies, who after the first song told the crowd not to request Kinks songs, assembled a backing band that essentially reinterpreted the Cardinal songs as sloppy pub rock tunes.

Elsewhere, I walked away with mixed emotions on both Friends and Prince Rama. The former was having a hoot on stage, but the sing-songy vocals sometimes sounded like yelps, and the stand-up drums often obscured the more minimal and obtuse guitar work.

FULL COVERAGE: South by Southwest

Prince Rama went even more primal with its rhythms, and its mix of psychedelic synths and Bollywood excitement was at times intoxicating. Songs rumble to a rise, as if a thunderous fanfare is slowly approaching on a desert landscape. Yet when the songs are overtaken by chants, it becomes an acquired taste. 

Thankfully, the night was saved by a rather stellar set from Lee Fields & the Expressions. There's little left to the imagination in Fields' brass-heavy mixture of James Brown and Sam Cooke, as the longtime sideman throws his lecherous heart on the stage floor. Fields fancies himself a ladies man -- "big ones, tall ones, short ones," he sings -- but there's a noirish undercurrent in the rather symphonic arrangements of the Expressions.

The effect, ultimately, is a collection of songs that view love as an addiction. Fields shouts as much as he sings, and he pushes his voice hoarse as he hollers of losing his shirt, his house and all of his willpower to the opposite sex. Yet there he was, flirting with girls at the foot of the stage between songs, a man -- and an artist -- possessed.


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-- Todd Martens in Austin, Texas

Photo: THEESatisfaction. Credit: David Belisle