Dusted's Ben Donnelly recaps South By Southwest without ever leaving his house.
Drag to iTunes:
33 Hours of SXSW for the Rest of Us
A few days before this year's South by Southwest festival kicked off, the hipster corners of the Internet were alive with links to a huge file download containing 491 tracks from artists who are participating. Well over a gigabyte, and with a playing time of over a day, it's a perfect example of the legitimate uses of Bit Torrent, the latest file-sharing technique to feel the wrath of big media.
Four hundred and ninety one songs is an impossible pool of art for anyone to thoroughly contemplate, but I've spent the last week digging through it, and I feel like I've given everything a fair shake. The only way to get a grasp on this huge a set is to do something rather un-Dusted: I had to get quantitative.
When the download completed, and the package decompressed, I was presented with two folders labeled, in Lewis Carroll fashion, “Drag to iTunes.” So drag I did, and proceeded to assign star-rankings to the songs. I attached brief comments to each file to start splitting things up into broad categories of quality and genre.
After trying the first 50 tracks, a despairing thought washed over me. I hadn't found anything worthwhile by a band I hadn't heard before. By the time I got to the end of it, I'd found some gems. But not many. I have spent time randomly listening to songs on garageband.com, where any musician who puts in enough effort to review a few dozen tracks by fellow amateurs can upload their own music, and this batch was a similar proportion of promising and dross. The challenge of music on the Internet, where posting music files is simple and cheap, is finding the distinctive stuff. But it's interesting that a peer-review system like garageband.com, which just filters out those who are too lazy to consider other folks' works, might be as good at turning up the diamonds in the rough as SXSW.
So, if you drag to iTunes, and look at how the bands labeled their files, here are some raw numbers of what you get:
193 unlabeled or something else.
(Of the unlabeled stuff, almost all of it is guitar rock or singer-songwriter stuff.)
Less than 20 songs are hip hop. One of the strongest tracks on the whole download, and the only impressive hip hop track, doesn't even have a artist named. It's a dense, foreboding rap called “Crooked Final. ” Aesop Rock is recognizable as one of the rappers, and when I contacted Def Jux, they identified is as the work of UK crew Evil Nine, with an appearance by Aesop. Their response also stated, ominously, “We were not aware it was being offered as a download.” Another track is probably titled “Rock and Roll Can Rescue the World,” but gets truncated to the far more amusing “Rock and Roll Can Rescue the W”
Tracks are orphaned and distorted by their metadata like that, which makes the actual song quality even more striking: all of these songs are cleanly produced. There's a pair of live tracks, and even those are sharp and clear. Digitalization has democratized recording as much as the distribution process. Ironically, it doesn't improve the impression these songs make. It makes the bland songs washout even more, and it makes the better songs sound more alike.
All of this semi-pro ProTooling suggests that there is a niche out there for young producers who can find a way to transcend the oppressive niceness of digital recording. The stuff that doesn't try to rock is stronger than the stuff that does, probably because there isn't the motivation to compress all the instruments into a wall of loud.
As I moved through the music, I found the best way to break things down was to use another trendy Internet technique. I started tagging, which is new jargon for categorizing online data with a few descriptive words. Recent break-out websites aggregate data that's been tagged, so one can quickly find a large set of information from diverse sources. For instance, if you go to the photo upload site flickr.com, and look up the tag sxsw, you can see hundreds of snapshots from Austin, everything from barbecue platters to hotel conference rooms filled with twentysomethings in ugly glasses.
I only needed a few tags to determine what could be dismissed and what required more listening. In retrospect, the tags seem a bit snarky, but what keeps the majority of these songs from captivating the ear really can be broken down into a few flaws.
Having to sift through this pile underscored a few truths so banal, one might hear them from an American Idol judge. For a recording to survive in this jungle, the two most important elements are the drums and the vocal character. I applied the “faceless” tag to any song where the vocalist was lacking. And like the production values, vocalists don't lack for technical reasons. Most of them sound so rock radio ready, they bring down songs that have decent instrumental hooks.
If a band is going to flag its wares in the genre of “Punk,” I'd rather hear the lisping shouter in Raking Bombs than another dude who sounds like he works in a food court. Better yet, the boy-girl croaks of Les Georges Leningrad. Punk ought to imply something scrappy in the songwriting and reckless in the delivery, not just some buzz-saw guitars and some disillusioned talk. Faceless singers neuter 183 of the tracks. There are a few tracks that are quite good, but capsize the second the vocals hit. The song “Transcendental Sports Anthem” might have lived up to the wit of its title, had the vocalist had more color. The track really does have a beat and instrumental hook that suits the PA of a hockey arena. But classic jock jams are fronted by oddball personalities - Gary Glitter, Blur, Queen. The dude delivering this one sounds like he could have been standing outside the arena, hoping to score some last minute seats. A band named Faceless Werewolves, incidentally, has an appealingly nasal vocalist.
Drumming and poorly conceived beats deaden the 79 tracks I tagged as “altrock.” A predictable beat is a strong marker of impending cliché. After a few measures of a familiar drum pattern, it's not hard to predict the rest of the song. Quiet and strummed now? Wait a bit, and it will surely get loud. Jolting power chords? Just wait for the rolling Black Sabbath riff. Plain 4/4 beat with pleading vocals? Here come the layers of jangle for the bridge.
The more surprising trend is just how much of this music seems indebted to U2. Some 43 songs depend on echoed guitar textures and some earnest vocalizing. Regardless of how you view U2, they seem perfectly capable of continuing their legacy. Some of the guitar theatrics edge towards Radiohead and Interpol, but the reliance on atmospheric guitar usually signals a threadbare song. The market for melodrama may never go away, but it's easy to resist. For the moment, U2 seems to have replaced Television, Sonic Youth and the Pixies as the model guitar sound. Those canonical bands don't resonate much here.
Or maybe all the U2 wannabes show up for the same reason there's a few dozen easily dismissed grunge bands in the mix: a lot of the music at South by Southwest is just farm-league major-label rock. Forty vocalists turned me off right away by trying too hard in the other direction: maniacal laughing or obviously posed animosity. Whatta bunch of meatheads. Metal bands were excused from my meathead tag. Meatheadedness is assumed. November's Doom should get some kind of special award, though, for their track “Not the Strong.” In full grindcore gutteral growl, the front man sings:
“If only my mother knew the real me
That would break Orion's shame
Not the strong man she raised from birth
A child, a coward, a scared soul
In my dreams I can fly away...”
For the even more earnest, modest songs, Bob Dylan is the surprisingly common influence. The long chords of elegiac Dylan, the “Knocking on Heaven's Door” and “Not Dark Yet” Dylan, are the preponderant mode. A few years ago, Neil Young would have been the role model for these tunes, or the Kinks. Quite a few songwriters are going for a mid-’70s feel, driven by piano or keys, like recent Spoon. There's some female singer songwriters who's work might have come off a bit earnest and faceless if they hadn't added a bit of dissonance and dark modal melodic lines. Nina Nastasia seems to have started this trend. Emily Spark's “Just as Well” is the best example. Her spare song coaxes a great end-of-the-night feel by adding the rhythm of a needle gently scraping at the end of an LP.
There aren't many bands that would fall into the garage rock trend of the last few years. But post-punk is still getting mined, and it's the jumping off point for the best of the rock tracks. Most of these tracks have synths (tagged 22 times), or are synthesizer driven, rather than the clanging Gang of Four funk that launched the trend. These songs share something with other standout tracks: lyrics that aren't overly earnest (Irony is not dead: 36 times). The stiff, spazzy approaches help some of the math rock and metal tunes stand out, too. Not swinging is the new black (spastic: 16).
The irony isn't always brilliant, but it shows some attention has been paid to the lyrics, and that there’s a message to be communicated. Audacious statements are rare. Daniel Johnston lets us know how he loves his marijuana. Ariel Pink lets us know that “Good Kids Make Bad Grown Ups”. Having something to say doesn't always pay off – a bitter acoustic screed called “Teevee” wilts next to a Robyn Hitchcock song on the same topic. Hitchcock's mixed feelings about the tube have a real depth, and the song still works as straight pop. The other song ends up like an Adam Sandler novelty.
So what is really good here? There are quality songs by Calla, Enon, El Guapo, Of Montreal, Parker & Lily, Numbers, Daniel Johnston, and Man Man. But those artists have already appeared on the Dusted charts. Who is new?
A Frames – "Experiment"
A Seattle trio who have put out two excellent albums on their own, and have a third on Sub Pop. A Frames have got a unique take on minimalist punk. Driven by trashcan rhythms, they are relentlessly dark, but the lyrics are so technophobic they evoke Devo's smirkless sense of humor. “Experiment” is as good a song as they've done.
Ariel Pink – "Good Kids Make Bad Grownups"
Finally, a track with muddy sound! The vocal delivery evokes a trippy version of the New Romantics, and the backing sounds like Roxy Music played over shortwave. It adds up to truly mind-expanding pop. Originally a bedroom project, they appear to have become a full band, sharing members with Animal Collective.
An Albatross - "I Am the Laser Viking"
Prog metal guitars get it done in 45 seconds, climaxing with the song title shouted as the first decipherable words. It's true. He is.
Bloom – "Don't Tell a Dead Man How to Die"
The future of music probably shouldn't be a single The Sweet could have put out in 1974. But if you are going to rewrite the mid-’70s, like so many acts, this is better than the Scissor Sisters.
Clorox Girls – "Walks the Streets"
It's a punk song. It's got a bridge that goes, “I don't wanna...” But the hyper attitude, and they way they sing, “She comes back for moah...” makes me think they've got more great ones in 'em.
Amy Correia – "Coney Island, USA."
She had a debut on Capitol a few years ago, and the Adult Alternative slickness ought to make this into NPR filler. The metaphor of an abandoned amusement park couldn't be more obvious. But this has a killer melody. Lines like “I thought I saw a whale / up in the sky /it's bloodshot eyes / blinking down on me” are arresting.
Fingathing – "Walk in Space"
Another track that is orphaned without info, but the band is actually from Manchester and have a full-length on Ninja Tune. Mid-tempo electronic stomping that has a classical-moog turnaround like Jean Jacques Perrey or Wendy Carlos. Same sort of wistful collage of styles that the Go! Team are working.
Gorch Fock – "First We Must Meet the Elders"
Surf guitar, Polyphonic Spree chorals, math rock crunch all work together with a trumpet on top.
Jennifer Gentle – "I Do Dream You."
Psych pop from Italy, every bit as charming as Syd Barrett or Neutral Milk Hotel. The singer has an androgynous voice that purrs like a fuzzbox on a low setting. New album on Sub Pop.
Raking Bombs – "A"
Synth chaos like Polysics, but with a Beefheart unpredictability to the structure and the riffing. And the singer lisps!
One thing these tracks have in common is that don't seem like set closers or EP openers. They aren't raising hands and bouncing in their seat, hoping to get the teacher's attention. Like the tunes offered up by veteran acts, there's a confidence that the song can stand on it's own. They feel like strong songs by artists who have more to offer.
By Ben Donnelly