Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Best of SXSW

A week in Austin takes a few days to digest. The intensity of binge gigging day and night, the sore feet from plodding up and down the city’s streets, the tiredness from venue hopping, and the amount of music you …

Sat, Mar 23, 2013, 15:13


A week in Austin takes a few days to digest. The intensity of binge gigging day and night, the sore feet from plodding up and down the city’s streets, the tiredness from venue hopping, and the amount of music you actually take in needs to percolate for a while until you’re able to dissect it properly. Right now, I’m taking in gigs at a more low key city festival, Canadian Music Week in Toronto which is a smaller, more chilled and spread out version of Austin’s madness. There was no big breaking act at SXSW this year. Talking to Nialler9 towards the end of the festival, he was pointing out the two year cycles of bands ebbing and breaking – HAIM and Hundred Waters who both played in 2012 but excelled this year being two good examples. So reflecting on Austin, here are some of the best things I took from it, and a couple of not so good things.

Best new band

Walking into the 1100 Warehouse to hear this band blasting out their awesomely dark, driving post-punk was wind tunnel stuff. They
play with such intensity, Jehny Beth stalking the stage like a lion sizing up prey. I caught them again at Club De Ville and again last night at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, their first Canadian gig. Even though they just played their first gig last January, their presence, musicianship and the atmosphere they conjure indicated a band on top of their game. Exciting stuff.

Best pop act

The dance-like-you-mean-it, high ponytail, high octane Danish Grimesy electronic pop with dashes of playful hip hop and more raised the roof at Red Eyed Fly, with the carefree but purposeful energy exuded putting other pop pretenders in their place.

Best established act
One of the gigs of the week, an all out rock out with three sisters who really know how to own the stage, their instruments, control their unique vocals and most importantly, have fun.

Best electronic act
Disclosure played a close to perfect set at the Hype Hotel, with enough butchness to keep the EDM whoopers and hollerers in the crowd happy, but also maintaining the nuances that make them a cut above. When electronic music can actually be recreated live – contrary to Deadmau5′s continuously ignorant statements – with this much verve it’s something very special indeed. A great soundsystem helped too.

Best gig you’re looking forward to then realise there’s just one song really.

Solange has it all; a great voice, brilliant style, a beautiful stage presence, some great musicians including Dev Hynes, and a wonderfully nostalgic sound with a pep in its step. What she doesn’t have is a bag of tunes though, and although her gig was exceedingly pleasant, Losing You is the only exceptional track. But what a track that is. The Robyn trick of making something mournful feel flighty, the brilliant sounds, squawks and synths, the fantastic melody, it’s pure genius. So, just more of those please, no pressure.

Biggest disappointment
Sky Ferreira
Speaking of only really having one song, this great white hope of alternative American pop came across as more Taylor Momsen than anything else, as she punctuated every track at her Pitchfork gig with complaints about her voice, and rolled around no genre in particular bashing into too much rock along the way. Everything Is Embarassing is great, but no amount of hype, press and Terry Richardson photos can hide the fact that Ferreira is in fact drawing from a very shallow pool.

Best voice
Devon Welsh
The still, brooding glare of Welsh from Majical Cloudz was only beaten in intensity by his remarkable voice. The mournful tone was captivating inside the small room at Mohawk where Welsh and his bandmate Matthew Otto bucked the trend at SXSW, bringing the tempo down, commanding silence and attention without asking for it, at cutting through the dark night air with vocals that surround you.

Most annoying trend
The EDMification of everything
There is of course something snobbish and very European about dissing American electronic music (without forgetting of course house and techno were invented on their mean streets) but so much of what’s being played, enjoyed, applauded and wheeled out at South By under the banner EDM is so shite that it’s very difficult not to keep banging on about it. The incredible lack of sophistication of just wanting drop after drop, the glitchy channel-surfing mentality of DJs racing through tracks that probably ultimately reflects the American ADHD psyche and annoys me in the same way that multiple ad breaks do, the lack of depth, younger artists seemingly taking their cues from artists who are already making really bad music – Skrillex, Deadmau5 – as opposed to trying to replicate quality, the macho audiences, the lack of emotion, the facepalm efforts of major labels wheeling out prototype pop stars with EDM hooks and shitty brostep drops, the lack of care for sound levels, the vast majority of it is just muck. It’s like being back in era of nu-metal. Ultimately this will be a musical phase everyone will try to forget.

Best hip hop
Zebra Katz
The New Yorker brought his bassy, dark yet also incredibly fun tunes to SXSW on the back of a huge shift in alternative hip hop with queer rappers reigning. Njena Reddd Foxxx was. Equally compelling.

Best other hip hop
Angel Haze
Angel Haze might not be able to hold crowd properly yet, and may lack the experience to take the audience with her, but her flow – even on an atmosphere-less outdoor stage – was undeniable. Lyrically, she’s smart and stunning, musically there is some beefing up to do. But she’s on it.

Best new tunes
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The tracks from Mosquito shimmered at Stubbs, especially Sacrilege which felt like an old favourite halfway through even though it was their first time playing it. Some quieter – and one REALLY quiet – tracks were also incredibly intriguing. There was a new sense of energy from the band, they seemed delighted to be back in front of a big crowd, which bodes more than well for their festival jaunts this summer.

Other good stuff
Hundred Waters, Mitzi, Blue Hawaii, Io Echo, Slow Magic, Parquet Courts, Empress Of, Austra, Azari & III.

I’ll be writing more on themes that emerged from the week over the next few days.