Just moments before sitting down to write about the best and worst of the South By Southwest music festival of last week, I found out about the death of Jason Molina, the troubled genius behind folk-blues outfits like Songs/Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company. This news would have been unsettling and heartbreaking regardless of what I was about to embark on, but sitting here trying to write about my 10th year at the music festival, I can’t help but think back to my first year in attendance and how I got to see Magnolia Electric Company perform at The Parish.
A lot has changed since that night a decade ago when Molina first enchanted me with his fragile, somber voice. Over the years I’ve seen SXSW grow along with my understanding of the festival and all its nuances. I think back to those performances from the first few years and wonder where the festival’s one time luster has gone. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a great week, seeing dozens of bands each day, but along with the growth of social media, SXSW has become more about the hype and less about discovering unpolished gems like my friends and I did 10 years ago with Jason Molina and his band. Yes, Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, and John Fogerty played a surprise set together, as well as Prince and Green Day (badge only shows), but due to the influx of speculation and misinformation within the Twitter world, I was unable to see several shows I would have in years past due to the miles of sheep lined up in hopes of seeing MTV TRL darlings like of Usher and Justin Timberlake.
Yet as much as these moments of frustration tainted my week, I still relished my chance to see up-and-coming artists pour their hearts out on the stage. Within the past ten years I’ve seen unknown artists perform at SXSW that went on to big time success (Bon Iver, The Fleet Foxes, and TV On the Radio), and I expect that many of the artists seen this week will go on to do just the same. Who knows? Maybe in ten years folks will be lining up for miles to see some of my favorites from this past week while I roam 6th street, 10 years older and wiser, in search of that next great unearthed treasure.
In memory of Jason Molina, I present to you my list of the best and worst of SXSW 2013.
Steve Albini is the Greg Popovich of music (or vice versa). This comparison goes beyond the obvious fact that they are both curmudgeons whose impenitent honesty has been known to ruffle feathers over the years. While both have been hugely successful, they both enjoy downplaying their impact. Albini has been known to insult the bands involved with some of his best work as a producer. He said the only reason he worked with Nirvana on “In Utero” was for the money, and he once called his work on “Surfer Rosa” with The Pixies “a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock”). Popovich isn’t one to mince words either, victimizing the people who have helped seal his place in basketball history: the media, the league, and his players (he’s quoted as once saying of his best player “Tim Duncan doesn’t have to say much. I haven’t liked him for a long time”).
But what truly ties these men together is not their venomous assault on anything and everything – it’s their ability to take the one-dimensional and make it multi-faceted. Popovich has been successful at this for years, making defensive players offensive threats (Bruce Bowen), picking players late in the draft that others have ignored and helping them become all-stars (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker), or culling players from the depths of the D-League/CBA and making them productive cogs within his basketball machine (Jaren Jackson, Gary Neal). Albini has worked much in the same manner, helping bands refine their sound and then blow it up with distortion. Despite both entering the second half of their life, they continue dominating their field. Popovich’s Spurs are currently 3rd in the Western Conference with an aging Tim Duncan and a sidelined Manu Ginobili, and Steve Albini’s fingerprints are deeply pressed into every nook and cranny on his latest work with Cloud Nothings.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
by William Carlos William
I remember first seeing this poem in high school and judging it as the worst piece of poetry ever written. It had no rhythm, no rhyme, and from what my adolescent mind could gather, no meaning. It didn’t help that my inept high school teacher didn’t have the sense to guide us toward a basic level of comprehension and appreciation. I ran into the poem once again in college, and the professor didn’t lend much help with understanding the poem either. Instead, he mocked the class, as he often did, saying over and over again, “Don’t you get why so much depends upon the wheel barrow?” He never did tell us the severe importance of that damn barrow.
A few weeks ago, I found myself facing the ghastly poem for the third time while perusing a book of poetry. Upon seeing it, I stopped and revisited William Carlos Williams words just for the sheer joy of stirring up bad memories. But on this third reading of the imagist poem, something happened. In a flash of clarity, it all made sense. I understood why so much depended on that wheelbarrow (a device that has been used by mankind as far back as Ancient Greece) and I realized that so much of the poem’s meaning depends upon the little details nestled within each word and line. The shape of the poem, the word sounds, the fragments of images, the compound words broken apart, the contrast of the red and white colors, all captured in that brief instant after rainfall – this one poem, illuminating the beauty of the moment.
As my understanding of this masterpiece emerged, I wished I could go back and explain it to my high school English teacher who only taught it because it was in the textbook. I wanted to revisit that college professor and reverse roles for a change. I realized that there is nothing more rewarding than when you finally break through and find the beauty in something that can both be found complex and simple at the same time.
I had this same feeling of illumination while listening to St. Vincent’s “Strange Mercy.” In the past, I never had much interest for Anne Erin Clark’s music project. The bits and pieces I’d heard seemed to be the same old ho-hum, run-of-the-mill songstress affair we’ve heard before. I didn’t quite get why the album “Actor” was so critically acclaimed.
This past year my ill-will toward the band all changed when I first saw their performance at the This Concert Could Be Your Life show, a 10-year celebration of Michael Azerad’s indie rock bible Our Concert Could Be Your Life. St. Vincent chose to play Big Black’s “Kerosene” and the result was extraordinary. Clark stepped onto the stage and ripped through a searing, caustic rendition of the classic song, transforming before my eyes from another Juliana Hatfield into an indie rock goddess worthy of sitting on the throne next to Steve Albini. This one performance changed everything, or at least I thought.
I of course responded to the performance by purchasing the lauded album “Actor,” expecting to find that it had that same vicious assault hidden amidst the balladry. Nope. It was exactly as I remembered. It wasn’t the girl I saw on the stage; it just couldn’t be. So reserved, so tame, so restrained. Where had that fiery beast gone? I wondered: did Steve Albini need to work his producer magic in order to release the fury on the next album?
I purchased “Strange Mercy,” hoping in my heart of hearts that Steve Albini answered my prayers and produced it (looking back, I’m glad he didn’t). Again, I was at first unimpressed with the album. It seemed to be a jumbled mess of strange synths and guitar squalls that never meshed with the tormented lyrics of Clark. Much like that red wheelbarrow, I just didn’t get the hype, and I didn’t know how this could be the same band that performed “Kerosene” only months earlier.
Then, a few days later, like Dorothy walking from black and white into Oz, I had my moment of clarity. Incredible. Simply incredible. The keyboards weren’t the mess I’d first assessed them as, rather a funky, Stevie Wonder era burst of adrenaline, taking songs of loneliness, uncertainty, and despair and making that agony somehow sexy. The guitars were not simply random bleeps, rather perfectly placed accents on the vivid, haunting stories found in Clark’s lyrics. Oh, and to simply say that the lyrics are all doom and gloom would be foolish. Her narratives take strange twists that can be either ironic or funny (or both) all the while furthering a message that digs deep into your soul/mind/heart and makes you question everything.
“Surgeon,” a cry for help or simply a song about sex? Or both?!:
Many of the songs feature a lush orchestration that rubs up roughly against the piercing guitars and keyboards, yet this dichotomy of sound adds an eerie element, conjuring up the melodies of the innocent 1950s amidst the chaos of video game like synth riffs and barking guitars.
The video for “Cruel” is probably my favorite of 2011:
Now I have a new problem: I can’t quit listening to “Strange Mercy”. Nothing else I contains the same adventurous spirit, the same open-hearted candor, the same experience of discovery within each listen. It’s like trying to follow-up a reading of “The Red Wheelbarrow” with “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” And where does the name St. Vincent come from? Coincidentally, the medical center where poet Dylan Thomas died. She’s been quoted as calling it “the place where poetry comes to die.” If so, she’s creating Poetry Zombies as we speak, one thought provoking song at a time.