For four days in March of every year, more musical notes fill the air in Austin, Texas, than any other place on the planet. This theory about the SXSW Music Conference may not be scientifically proven, but it feels like reliable enough wisdom. The music does blast from every single speaker available; here are the first night highlights.
It’s difficult to refer to this Seattle-based trio without putting the prefix “power” before any other adjective. They feel like a power trio that play power pop. That could be because the frontman, Michael Benjamin Lerner, is the drummer — and he punishes his kit with walloping fills in between singing hooks so catchy that you’ll find yourself singing along by the second chorus, even if you’ve never heard the song before.
Sharon Van Etten
Lights on the floor projected larger-than-life shadows on the clean, white curtain behind Sharon Van Etten and the rhythm section duo that backed her. There couldn’t be a more fitting metaphor for the big and effortless voice that comes out of Van Etten’s small body. It is a true joy to watch an audience finding a singer just as that singer is finding her voice. And though the songs from “Epic” — the album she released last fall — demonstrated an absolute command over that voice, it was a new song that provided the goosebumps. Van Etten sang, “We all make mistakes.” The phrase may be true in her life, but there are no mistakes in her songwriting.
This London band seeps into the senses through their similarities to sights and sounds you already know. The drummer looks like the drummer from the band Boston. The bass player looks like a cross between Karen O. and “Ramona Quimby Age 8.” The singer sounds like he would have a hard time picking between Teenage Fanclub and the Gin Blossoms at karaoke, and the guitarist borrows the recipe for guitar soup from Yo La Tengo. But this just means Yuck has good taste. (Excuse the pun.) These elements melded into something uniquely Yuck.
James Blake, another Londoner, seems ready to poke through the blogosphere and into the mainstream with the tricks he borrows from Aaron Neville and dubstep. The result of these dissimilar sounds is haunting. He sits still at a keyboard, across from another keyboard player, with a drummer between them. They create a sound full of spaces and beauty. There is, however, a chance that it is only so moving because the enormous bass sound the other keyboardist plays shakes your insides and quite literally forces you to feel something. Where songs traditionally have used a hook to shake your heart, Blake has mechanically engineered his songs to do so. Is it cheating? Maybe. Does it work? Yes.
Follow Pat Healy on Twitter at @metrousmusic.