SXSW 2010 Recap

My thoughts on the 22 bands I listened to at this year’s South By Southwest Music Festival.

Slow Club

Even better than last year. This British duo practices a perfect mixture of stomping rhythms and gorgeous harmonized vocals. Rebecca Taylor is a powerhouse singer, projecting a lovable blend of brashness and glee.

The Right Ons

Another killer live act, this Spanish quintet oozes good times. They shake like the Stones of your imagination, held forever in youth and small-venue fever. Their tunes aren’t the most ambitious, but the guitar rock is tight, and it’ll make you move.

Andrew W.K.

Andrew W.K. took advantage of the smaller scale of South by Southwest to take the stage for a solo gig, just him and his Roland organ. He announced he wanted to “play the jester,” and the resulting set was fun and loose. Improvised songs about “Small Dogs” and “Geese That Bite Back” were mixed with intricate scales and structures. His talent was impressive without being overwhelming, and a solo version of “I Get Wet” still held surprising power.

The Wave Pictures

A standard rock trio, the Wave Pictures grew throughout their set with well-realized song-stories and bright, lively guitar licks. The solos combined clean structure with improvisatory freshness, building a straightforward held that held some surprising changes of direction.

Riddim Saunter

An excellent aggregation of seeming spare parts, this Japanese band tosses together guitar, drums, bass, flute/trumpet and vocals. Their sound is charming and unassuming, producing the communal vibe of a night out with good friends, who just happen to play awesome Beatles-derived tunes.

Tobacco

A great collection of electro-psychedelia, this two-piece offered freaky tracks with weird video backing. Much of the music is pre-recorded, casting the live performance into a kind of uncanny valley, but their sound is great.

Imaad Wasif

Awesome guitar rock, with clean acoustic undertones overlaid with ominous electric riffs. Wasif in person in surprisingly frail—almost breakable—but his music is muscular and intricate.

Wooden Birds

Another repeat act, the Wooden Birds offer calm, quiet lyrical rock. Lead singer Andrew Kenny has a soft, assured voice, and his phrasings are well matched by the lead lines of guitarist Leslie Sisson. They offer an oasis of sound, which serves as a nice refuge.

Red Bacteria Vacuum

A three-piece all-girl punk band from Japan, Red Bacteria Vacuum gets by on enthusiasm (the fact that they’re adorable probably doesn’t hurt either). The punk rhythms are confident, the vocals powerful. There isn’t much novelty here, but what they do is done well.

Okamoto’s

A mixed bag with a lot of talent: the guitar is bruising, the drums roll, the bassist is a string-walking monster. The lead singer can jump, kick, scream and pout—he’s obviously well-versed on old Mick Jagger videos. What he can’t do, however, is sing so well. It’s a good live show, but it would be better if he were more prone to hitting his notes.

Still Flyin’

As much a commune as a band. Up to a dozen people take the stage, with organ, extra percussion, stacked vocalists and dedicated dancers adding to the effect. They’re a little more rocking than the jam bands you feel they should remind you of; think Rusted Root with more guts and more thump.

Spindrift

Howling cowboy-tinged rock with synths and long, lonesome guitar lines. The singer tends more toward yelps than lyrics. While the rattle is energizing, it plateaus after a while.

Uninhabitable Mansions

Solid Brooklyn rock, with nothing unexpected. An organ adds some texture, but the lead singer’s vocals are two-faced. When he’s in a comfortable range, he can push out some hummable tunes, but he has a tendency to try to strain up the scale, with less listenable results.

Omodaka

A theatrical performer, Japanese electronica artist Omodaka takes the stage in full Kabuki regalia, complete with painted face. She buzzes out quirky little tunes with the help of modded handheld video game systems, extending a mic to a flat-screen “singing head” for vocals. By the end of the show, the music was having a hard time holding up the concept, but it was an ambitious performance.

Sweet Apple

J. Mascis has teamed up with some Cleveland garage rockers for this side project. The sound was messy, the lead singer felt the need to bash the outdoor band, but the guitars were thick and propulsive, washing over the audience in a high-volume flood.

The Rural Alberta Advantage

Some gaps seemed to poke through this three-piece’s spare sound. Lead singer Nils Edenloff carries the sonic weight on his shoulders with intense singing and strumming, but the accompanying organ is thin and tentative. The band has some good tunes but seems to be missing a piece.

Holy Fuck

Four-piece electro rock, with a drum-and-bass rhythm section and two guys bobbing over synthesizers and making largely unintelligible noises into microphones. They built some good sonic pieces, but the whole thing felt very self-directed and ultimately unpleasing.

Cate Le Bon

A smoky-voiced female singer on organ with a backing band, Cate Le Bon offers little smoldering bit of music. They’re appealing as they’re played, sad and wistful, but don’t seem to leave much for the memory after they’ve burned away.

Voivod

This group of metal lifers started with some classic shredding sounds, but severe amp troubles led to a truncated set. It’s not really my kind of music, but I admired their perseverance.

Dolly

Another Japanese all-female offering, this one went the high-concept route, playing in top hats and suit jackets that suggested “steampunk elevator operators.” They seemed over-reliant on spectacle, with songs that felt over-choreographed and underwhelming.

Chatmonchy

Guitar rock by the numbers from an all-female Japanese three-piece band. They seemed overwhelmed by the setting and never fully connected with the crowd.

Best Fwends

A joke act that surprisingly made a showcase stage, Best Fwends featured two identically dressed dudes who sang/shouted over a combo of prerecorded tracks and live backing. There was good humor and inflatable gargoyles, but thankfully the whole thing was brief.