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Best and Worst SXSW 2011 (part I)

Once again, South By Southwest was a much different experience this year. The past six years I’ve always had one of two people by my side, and usually both: PtheStudP and Johnny Goodyear.  For the first time, our SXSW pact was broken due to circumstances out of their control, leaving me reeling and unsure whether I could do the festival all by my lonesome.  Fortunately, after making a phone call to my longtime friend Sewer, I was able to coax him to join me for the week, and as an added bonus, my other friend Doon would also be along for most of the festival.  After a week of great shows, free beer, and nightly stops to the Sausage King, here is my list of the best and worst of SXSW 2011.

Best Showcase- Vans

At first glance, you would think that a Showcase held by Van’s would be an emo-scream-o nightmare based solely off of the rosters they’ve organized for the Van’s Warp Tour the past few years. But the likes of Bad Brains, OFF!, Trash Talk, and Black Lips made for a pretty impressive, multi-facted line-up, running the gamut of what punk rock can be.  Whether it be Trash Talk’s rage against melody, OFF!’s resurgence of Black Flag’s crunch, Bad Brain’s fusion of reggae-punk, or even Black Lip’s punk rock take on the 50s and 60s – there was something for everyone in this  punk buffet.

 

Yes, THAT Bad Brains...

Trash Talk took their act to the crowd.

Trash Talk impressed with a rip-roaring show filled with sweat and stage dives.  Their fill-in bass player deserves recognition for stepping into the slot of an injured Spencer Pollard who was stabbed last week in a hate crime.  Black Lips sounded as jangly and fun as ever, although singer Cole Alexander was tame in comparison to the legends I’ve heard of their performances.  Bad Brains seared through classic after classic, and I would challenge to say they sounded better than they did on classics like “I Against I” and “Rock For Light”. Okay, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but they were pretty damn great for a bunch of old dudes. The highlight of the show though was OFF! with Keith Morris growling and roaring complaints and allegations. He stalked the stage, back and forth, like a man possessed, and if it weren’t for the giant bald spot hidden beneath his five dreads, you’d think they were a group of teenage punks transferred from 1979.

Here’s a clip I took of “Now I’m Pissed”:

Worst Band- Stripminers

She looks excited, doesn't she?

To say the Van’s Showcase was perfect would be a lie.  While I can’t speak for the closer Talib Kweli since we left to go see Pete and the Pirates (more on them in the next post), the opening band The Stripminers were possibly the worst band I’ve ever seen in SXSW history.  Being a “side-project” for The Donna’s Brett Anderson and the Radishes Paul Stinson, The Stripminers not only sang milk-toast-pop-rock fit for the Jonas Brothers, but they were so devoid of charisma that they came across as a vacuum for all that is fun.  I understand that this was one of their first shows together, but you could feel so much tension between the members on the stage that you would swear they are a band of veterans on the verge of a break-up after years of touring.  Nope. They announced their new project in February.

It became obvious quickly that Anderson was the alpha of the group, and the others stayed away from here and avoided eye contact as to not to disturb the sleeping dragon (she didn’t even help the band break down the stage after the show). Mid-show, we tried heading next door to Emo’s Jr. to see a better band, but we were greeted by the rap-metal band Skrew – proof that the curse of Fred Durst still lives.  We decided to return to The Stripminers because at least their miserable performance was funny in a “Piranha 3D” kind of way while Skrew were bad in the vein of “Grown-Ups” (has there ever been a more painful film to watch?).

When we came back to The Stripminers, their crowd had completely evaporated, and Anderson’s request for clapping resulted in only the sound of crickets chirping.  At one point she looked right at Sewer and I and scowled when she saw the two of us laughing directly at her lackluster performance.  I should probably feel bad about that, but for some reason, I don’t.

Best Band Discovered- Davila 666

On Thursday night, when the opportunity to see OFF! arose, Sewer wanted to check them out a second time (plus, Doon had joined us and we both agreed he had to see them). With Megafaun playing next door at the same time, I figured I had an obligation to pay my respects to the guys who wrote and recorded “Gather, Form, & Fly”.  Worried I wouldn’t get in, I left my friends around nine and arrived just in time to catch the Minneapolis band Leisure Birds. I enjoyed their set, but between songs I’d catch a glimmer of punk rock anthems echoing from the “neighbor’s” yard.  After four songs, I decided I had to revisit my friends next door to see what all the commotion was about.

When I walked through the entrance I found what looked to be five Puerto Ricans hopping around while the singer howled out unintelligible lyrics.  Despite the language barrier, the riffs spoke straight to my gut, rumbling for more and pushing me toward my friends who were already taking in the lively set.  Without my old partner PtheStudP around, I didn’t expect to find many new bands, but fortunately I waltzed into the Club DeVille to catch the last half of Davila 666’s set (and I still even got to see Megafaun).

This is the only clip I could find online of their set and it’s cut short, but you get the gist:

Best and Worst Crowd Interaction Moment- Screeching Weasel

I’ve already written a blog on this (see Sunday’s “Video Clip of the Week”), but I can’t deny that Ben Weasel punching two women during what may be Screeching Weasels last show ever will forever be tied to this year’s SXSW.  Looking back, I can’t decide whether it was a horrible moment or punk rock at its finest (hear me out…).  Ben spent 50% of the set complaining about money, SXSW, bloggers, their label, YOU NAME IT. He alienated the majority of the audience by the show’s end, so it’s no wonder that the crowd began tossing beer and ice toward him. In the end he punched two women, something I would never condone, yet I can’t help but feel he pulled an Andy Kauffman on all of us, playing our emotions and leading us toward the type of lowly, unrestrained behavior that punk rock has been missing for a while now.  I bet even he realizes he took his angst just a little too far.

It’s fascinating to watch each time:

Worst Venue: East Side Drive-In

A few weeks before SXSW 2011, a new venue began popping up on all the day showlists – East Side Drive-In.  At first I figured it was just another dude letting bands play at his house a la The Church of the Friendly Ghost, but then suddenly I saw a shocker: Pitchfork was breaking their tradition of doing their parties at Emo’s, opting for this mysterious East Side Drive-In.  It had to be more than just a house, and unfortunately, it was.  I didn’t make it to the Pitchfork show, but I did head out to the east side of the interstate to check out the Fun Fun Fest show at the Drive-In.  When we arrived, we came to find a desolate, dusty field with the type of stages you’d find at a Warp Tour. It looked like a music festival with a food court area, and tents for beer and liquor.  The fact that it was also a free show on a Saturday resulted in a crowd of undesirables. Large crowds, sprawling venues, and food courts: this is exactly what SXSW is not about.

Best Venue- Lovejoy’s

There is not much I can say other than I still adore Lovejoy’s.  It may not have the best stage, but everyday you can guarantee that they will have great free beer on tap. There’s no better way to start each day then with a beer by the likes of Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, and Left Hand.  Not bad in comparison to NPR’s day show offering of one free PBR.

Best Day Party- Rhapsody Rocks

Shockingly though, Lovejoy’s didn’t have best free drinks of the week. The Rhapsody Rocks show at the Club DeVille take that honor, offering up an endless supply of free Guinness, Red Stripe, and Jeremiah Weed. But the free stuff didn’t end there: free posters, t-shirts, bottle openers, pancakes…it seemed like each time you strolled to the port-a-potties a new goody would appear on the table.  Oh, and the show was pretty damn sweet as well. Anytime you kick your show off with Ty Segall, there’s no doubt that someone knows what they’re doing.

Ty Segall woke me from my Guinness haze:

How do you follow Ty Segall up? Kurt Vile and the Violators isn’t a bad choice.  In fact, ever since seeing Vile and his band put on a mesmerizing set, I’ve listened to “Smoke Ring For My Halo” a total of seven times.  With his mellow melodies, I swear he put a trance on me (but I don’t mind).  Starting your day party with Ty Segall and Kurt Vile is like having Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay as your starting pitchers; no need for a bullpen.  I returned to my friends after Vile and we half listened to Small Black and Glasser for the next few hours, although our main focus was on that magical black concoction known as Guinness and conversation that led to excessive laughter.

Around four, the venue began to fill up quickly, signaling the sign that the monsters of indie rock were about to close the show out: yes, my friends, this would be the only Deerhunter show at SXSW 2011, and we were there to see Bradford Cox and company do there thing.  Despite the excessive crowd, we were able to get up pretty close and catch the band under the shade of the tent canopy while all the other onlookers sweated away in the warm Texas sun.  The band took their constantly morphing guitars to a new level, bringing classics like “Desire Lines” and “Nothing Ever Happened” to uncharted territories. At home, I play Deerhunter and focus on the lyrics of loneliness and desperation, but on this day of great music, great beer, and great friends, I listened to them and felt strangely happy.

The Guinness had an affect on my cinematography:

 

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Top 100 Tracks of 2010 (25-1)

25. “Tuning Out”

Eddy Current Suppression Ring

On face value, this is just another punk rock song, but if you listen a little longer you’ll hear exactly what makes Eddy Current Suppression Ring different than others within the genre.  While most bands would wrap this song up at the two minute mark, ECSR have just begun.  The next four and a half minutes of “Tuning Out” Eddy Current takes front stage, manipulating his Stratocaster to its limit, making a gluttonous amount of squeaks and howls, showing exactly why this is his band.

24. “Crank Resolutions”

Meursault

Back in Septemeber, I wrote of Meursault and this song: “While most bands are forced to rely on a more polished production value to push the sense of urgency to a higher level, Meursault rely solely on a strange mixture of popping beats and crunching piano riffs that are reminiscent of a CB radio broadcast.Crank Resolutions’ features a beat that is beyond description (which is a good thing).”

23. “Don’t Look Back”

Kylesa

Usually, Kylesa are pretty damn scary, but on “Don’t Look Back” they sound strangely inspirational. Tony Robbins better watch his back (on second thought Tony, heed Kylesa’s advice and don’t look back).

22. “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent Pt. 2: Innocent”

Besnard Lakes

I saw Besnard Lakes perform this song at SXSW this past year, and since then, I haven’t been able to remove the soothing chorus of “Ooh, you’re like the ocean” out of my head.  You can put your ear up to my cranium like it’s a seashell and hear the sounds of “Like the Ocean” softly echoing inside.

21. “Hey Cool Kid”

Cloud Nothings

“Hey Cool Kid” is a story of an outsider, realizing that his idol is nothing but an asshole who will “beat me back into the ground”.  Despite this, his insecurity pushes him to still keep asking for the cool kid “to come around”.

20. “Suburban War”

Arcade Fire

When I first heard this song I liked it because the guitar lick reminded me of The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”.  Then of course I made the mistake of listening to the lyrics, and this once upbeat song spawned sorrow for those friends I’ve lost in their pursuit of adulthood:

My old friends
I can remember when
You cut your hair
We never saw you again
Now the cities we live in
Could be distant stars
And I search for you
In every passing car

19. “Sleepless in Silver Lake”

Les Savy Fav

As far as I’m concerned, there are way too many songs about Los Angeles. Where are the songs about Bozeman, Montana for Christ’s sake!? Despite the saturation of “I Love L.A.”s and “Under the Bridge”s, Les Savy Fav present a fresh take on the City of Angels with “Sleepless in Silver Lake”:

The walking wounded wrap their face in gauze.
These kids’ll kill ya just because they can.
Their teeth are bleached and their tits are tan.

18. “Black Bubblegum”

Title Tracks

I’m 86% sure that this song is about Sherry Becker who chewed Black Jack bubblegum, wore an orange dress, and witnessed Jerry Seinfeld returning Tropic of Cancer to the library in 1972 (or was it Dentyne?).

17. “The Tree”

Blitzen Trapper (featuring Alela Diane)

Another highlight of 2010 for me was my last minute trip to Portland with my brother. The two of us rented a little Vibe and drove around the area, hiking whatever peaks we could fit in within our three-day stay.  While hiking along the Cascade Ridge, we came upon 300-year-old Sitka trees – an army of menacing patriarchs, standing judicious and strong, looking down upon all that pass by.  Whenever I listen to the 2010 release from Portland’s own Blitzen Trapper I can’t help but think back to that trip, more specifically this song with its lyrics of a tree that “grows never-ending”.   Upon each listen, I’m brought back to that day, standing with my brother and looking up at the majestic beasts that surrounded us.  The addition of Portland’s first lady Alela Diane to the song only sweetens the song’s enchantment.

16. “Take It Easy”

Surfer Blood

Starts off with a tropical feel, moves into an early 90s alternative chorus, and ends with an 80s U2 outro: this is what we call a song quilt.

15. “The Boys are Out”

Hanoi Janes

Whenever I play this song I feel guilty. I bought the Hanoi Janes latest release, and after listening to it all the way through a couple times, I found myself continually going back to this song (ignoring the rest).  There is just something about the little freak out that arrives at the 30 second mark- maybe it’s the drumstick cracks, or it could possibly the call-and-response guitars that reverberate from one speaker to the other- whatever it is, “The Boys are Out” is the most fun you’ll have in under a minute thirty.

14. “The Winner”

Kris Kristofferson

“Twistable, Turnable Man” was an album of Shel Silverstien covers that came out this past year, and despite an impressive list of bands featured on it (My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Lucinda Williams) the best cover is performed by old reliable, Kris Kristofferson.  His raspy baritone naturally works with Silverstein’s narrative songwriting. When I listen to this song, I imagine the narrator is LeBron James and Tiger Man the Cool is Michael Jordan.  It just seems fitting after finding out this past summer that James doesn’t understand what it takes to be a winner.

13. “My Gap Feels Weird”

Superchunk

I would prefer if this song were about having a pain in your taint, but it ends up ol’ Mack wrote it about going to a show and realizing you’re the oldest one there. I hate to admit that I can relate.  At least I can take comfort in knowing old folks are always welcome at a Superchunk show.

12. “Night, Night”

Big Boi (featuring B.o.B. and Joi)

“Night, Night” is one of the finest rap call-outs you’ll ever hear, not pointing out one specific MC, rather annihilating all the fools that can’t hold themselves up to Big Boi’s standard.  To back up his flow built on intelligence rather than empty threats, Big Boi blends a funky bass with a spunky female choir that is completely devoid of auto-tune.  It truly is “something new.”

11. “Marimba and Shit Drums”

Moonface

Earlier this year, I wrote of this song/album: “There is only one 20-minute song on Moonface’s EP “Dreamland” and it is called “marimba and shit-drums”.  The title is straight to the point because, in fact, the song is comprised of just that: a marimba and shit-drums.  Of course, you also hear Spencer Krug’s voice, but otherwise it is simply a marimba and shit-drums; nothing more, nothing less. The constant pulse of the marimba gives the song imminence; a feeling that the echo of the wooden bars being struck by a mallet is building towards something, racing toward a culmination.  Then, of course, the shit-drums kick in and it’s on.  The crackling of the harsh rhythm plays as the perfect antithesis to the happy-go-lucky marimba.   Krug has taken the joyful sounds of the African instrument and somehow given it tension, made it angrier, made it sound more, dare I say, hardcore.  With only two simple instruments Krug creates music that is just as dramatic and heartfelt as anything by Explosions in the Sky.  Creating explosions with only two instruments?  In essence, Krug is the MacGyver of the music world.”

10. “Glitter”

No Age

When Dean Spunt sings “I want you bad underneath my skin”, he’s encapsulating addiction. It could be a dependence to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or maybe even an abusive relationship; whatever it is, the speaker knows it will cause harm yet craves it.   For me, the addiction is to the screeching distortion that lurks in the background of this song.  To many, I’m sure this sounds like simply noise, but I keep coming back. Not because I enjoy pain, but because I’ve found beauty within that dissonance. I can’t get enough of that needling noise underneath my skin.

9. “Dance Yrself Clean”

LCD Soundsystem

I present to you an auditory cleansing. The first three minutes will help you relax, help raise your spirits. And then, well, then it’s time. James Murphy’s pumping beats and throbbing bass line burst through the speakers and spray you with an energy you didn’t have moments ago.  Suddenly, without warning, you’re on your feet moving; washing away your worries; shaking away your negative energy; dancing yourself clean.

8. “Desire Lines”

Deerhunter

If you asked me a year ago to name the top ten songs of the past decade, Deerhunter’s “Nothing Ever Happened” would have easily made the list.  Its fluid movements from one riff to the next continues to leave me in awe.  I didn’t think the band could ever top the song. Then along comes “Haclyon Digest” with the song “Desire Lines”, and I’m thrown for a loop.  Not only does this song follow the same transformational model (three minutes in the madness is unleashed), but it also features an even catchier chorus to start things off.  “Nothing Ever Happened” probably remains the quintessential Deerhunter song for me, but they are sure making things difficult.

7. “Post Acid”

Wavves

Only a year ago, everyone hated Nathan Williams for his meltdown in Barcelona, even his drummer. But now it’s officially time to exonerate him of his past mistakes.  Not only are his songs more instantaneously satisfying, but he’s also apologizing in “Post Acid” when he sings “I was just having fun with you.” Ah shucks Nathan; we forgive you.

6. “Wide Eyes”

Local Natives

The harmonizing voices, the machine gun drums, the twinkling guitar riffs: “Wide Eyes” is an example of a band finding their true potential. While much of “Gorilla Manor” is milk-toast mediocrity, this song proves that when all the pieces are put in the right place, Local Natives are capable of making extraordinary music.

5. “Round and Round”

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

All of the parts of “Round and Round” work together like a merry-go-round of melody, moving round and round, up and down, creating an experience that will have you begging for another ride through simpler times.

4. “Snakes for the Divine”

High On Fire

The metal anthem is not dead, despite what sports arenas around the country would suggest. They’d like you to believe that fist pumping and head banging died with AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica.  Wrong. Imagine if you will, your favorite sports team running onto the court/field/ice as the opening to “Snakes for the Divine” rumbles through the stadium, building a frothing mass of furious, energized fans, filled with bloodlust for a win, shaking, twitching, standing on the verge of a completely chaotic riot…. actually, it’s probably a good idea to keep High On Fire out of the stadiums (especially Detroit).

3. “Monster”

Kanye West (featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nikki Manaj, and Bon Iver)

When Kanye West sang his song “Runaway” at the VMA’s, most thought it was an admission of guilt to Taylor Swift. Not so fast my friend. Soon after “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” came out and all thoughts of apologies disappeared.  On “Monster” Kanye erases any suggestions of humility or guilt When he spouts, “I’m living in the future so my presence is my past. My presence is a present kiss my ass.” This is the musical version of Hulk Hogan joining the NWO; Kanye takes pride in his villainous portrayal.  The scariest part of “Monster” is not the flows of Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z, or even the soothing vocals of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That honor goes to Nicki Minaj’s venomous verse that electrifies and brings this monster of a song to life.

2. “A Cold Freezin’ Night”

The Books

Set to what resembles the theme music to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “A Cold Freezin’ Night” features samples of a little boy ranting about how he will kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, and cut your toes off.  In response, a little girl admits that boys are better than girls, even going so far as to wish she was a boy.  And somehow, all these chauvinist, psychotic threats are joyful due simply to a great dance beat (and a short harmonica solo never hurts). If only it was this easy to make little kids tolerable in real life.

1. “Caesar”

Ty Segall

Earlier this year I bought a record player and soon after found myself with a vinyl obsession.  Most of my records were used purchases, but I also dabbled in buying the vinyl of new releases. With many labels including a free download code with a purchase, it just seems to make more sense to get the larger than life packaging/artwork. One of my earliest purchases was Ty Segall’s “Melted”, and it quickly became a mainstay on my turntable.  Every time I listened to the album, I would get up and push the arm back to the beginning of “Caesar” to hear it one, two, maybe even three times in a row.  A month ago as I was compiling this list I put “Melted” on again only to find that during “Caesar” my record now skips.  While the loss of this song saddened me to no end, the scratch also symbolized my undying affection for this pop-punk gem. Fortunately for you, you can listen to the clip above as many times as you like without fear of a scratch (but you won’t get the full effect without it  crackling out of a record player).

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