SXSW 2008

New music, or…well… the accessibility to new music, has become more attainable than ever before. The advancements in electronic media have had a profound effect on the way the world receives information. Social networking sites, blogs, and satellite radio have expanded our choices in ways that are instantly available and exceptionally unique. While there is still joy to be had in visiting the local record store and perusing through bin after bin of artists new and old, music fans can also savor the sounds of barely emerging artists with a few simple clicks. But, before the advent of the Internet and its inevitable contribution to the way we process and obtain music, people had to work a little harder and interact a little more face-to-face in order to find the next best thing. Live music is an effective medium for connecting individuals who seek and appreciate innovative music. And while the world over has a number of incredible music festivals that showcase a diverse range of artists, there is one in particular that has the wherewithal to bring together the crème de la crème of new musicians with industry folks, dedicated fans, and other aspiring musicians. SXSW not only gives bands the chance to showcase their work, it also gives them the chance to gain valuable resources on how thenew music industry is emerging and what steps they need to take to become a part of the next wave of sound.

The experience of attending SXSW – as a critic or as a fan – is a pretty overwhelming one (why do you think it’s taken me so long just to write about it!). Whether you are there for work or play, the idea of being that close to so many bands with the potential to change the face of independent music is mind-boggling. There was absolutely no way to see and hear all the music your heart desired and it probably left the average SXSW-er with a slight pang of anxiety and regret. The mix of artists chosen to play this year’s SXSW came from all over the world and brought their A-game with them. Although there were unforgettable performances given by more familiar artists like My Morning Jacket, M. Ward and Ice Cube – the meat and potatoes of SXSW was in seeing artists you barely knew or kind of forgot about. And though many of the bands that played this year already had a substantial following before they even made it to Austin, all you really needed was a little organization and a lot of patience to seek out the hot, new bands playing the nooks and crannies of Austin’s lesser-known establishments. Below are just a small fraction of the artists that stole my musical heart over the 4-day event. Some of the bands mentioned are bands I was already intimately familiar with, while SXSW kindly introduced me to the rest.
Autolux – Loud does not even begin to describe how intense this L.A. based trio can get. With chords that literally shake your skin into submission, Autolux creates a sound that is a sublimely perfect blend of ferocious noise and cheese-less pop. There are so few bands these days that understand the fine oscillation that exists between jarring volume and sensuous pop melodies. Autolux has mastered these indie rock elements and in turn has produced songs that are rich with harmony that can merit the use of earplugs as easily as they can lull you into a state of calm. They played a number of performances this year and each one was edgy, intense and instantly captivating. They have the ability to suck the audience into their noise and wrestle their ears to the ground. The only shame is that they have only released one full-length album since 2004. Thankfully, a new record – currently titled Transit Transit – is set for release sometime this year. Get ready to have your socks rocked because this stuff is probably going to break all kinds of sound barriers.
Lightspeed Champion – What a clever little man is Devonte Hynes – the mastermind behind the folk-inspired indie rock sound of Lightspeed Champion. Although his previous projects have been a little noisier and experimental, the music he has created as Lightspeed Champion is witty poetry reminiscent, in some parts, of the spirit of Badly Drawn Boy. His songs read like everyday conversations that just happen to be set to an acoustic guitar, violins, and an occasional keyboard. After seeing him play a short acoustic set accompanied by a lone violin player, I was instantly hooked. His voice and lyrics don’t need more than simple instrumentation to be appreciated and enjoyed. His debut release Falling Off the Lavender Bridge was recorded with the help of a few Saddle Creek musicians – giving it a quintessential indie rock feel that is familiar, but different enough so as not sound like every other dude with an acoustic guitar and a notebook full of songs that should never see the light of day. LSC is undeniably endearing and needs to be hunted, captured and played on repeat.

Longwave -Longwave is one of those bands that you probably really dug when you first heard about them five or so years ago. Their first commercial release back in 2003 caused a great deal of excitement amongst indie music fans. While the album still holds strong after so many years, their live performances left much to be desired. After seeing them tour for The Strangest Things – my excitement pretty much turned to disappointment and disinterest. After that one performance so many years ago, I placed Longwave in the back of my mind and didn’t give them a second thought until their standout performance at Emo’s. Having not released an album in a few years, Longwave did the smart thing and took some time to collect themselves and their musical vision. What has resulted is an endless stream of songs that are more mature and more textured – not to mention loud. They apparently finished putting together a new record, but no word on when it will be released. Hopefully their solid performances at SXSW this year will be the push they needed to get their new sound back out to the masses.
Oppenheimer – Northern Ireland is home to a number of indie bands that Americans have grown to love. As of late, we seem to have become smitten with Snow Patrol (although technically they are a band formed in Scotland – a good portion of their members are from Northern Ireland). Although S.P.’s music has changed pretty dramatically – not necessarily in a good way – since their introduction to the US market, there are a number of solid Northern Ireland artists that are emerging to take the indie music world over. The newest sensation out of Belfast is the likeable duo that is Oppenheimer. With an album set to release in June, these guys are already winning the hearts of indie music fans. Having snagged a spot on the recent They Might Be Giants tour – Oppenheimer has been injecting Americans with their signature blend of clever pop tunes full of humor and heart. They engage their audience, making them a part of the overall live music experience and that makes their sound even more palatable. They have only just begun making a name for themselves in our neck of the woods, but rest assured that the guys from Oppenheimer are going to sing their way into your aural cavities and you won’t be able to fish them out.
Ra Ra Riot – Yay for bands that play uncompromisingly good indie rock music, but do so in a way that doesn’t make you yawn or compare them to the hundreds of other indie rock bands out there. Ra Ra Riot is one of those good indie rock bands that, despite their young age, get what it means to create music that is well-executed and rife with talent and spirit. Their rather large band consists of musicians that play the violin, cello and keyboards with such ease and enthusiasm. They are kind of like a loveable nerd that isn’t quite yet aware of the awesomeness s/he possesses. Their ability to play all-out indie rock goodness that is capable of being both animated and mellowed out – though not really at the same time – is awe-inspiring. Although all they have out right now is an EP that was released in 2007, Ra Ra Riot has been signed to V2 Records and is working on their first full-length album due out sometime in the later part of the summer.
South – South (pictured) is another one of those bands that has been around a long time and made some great music, but never seems to get above the radar. If you haven’t heard of South before, chances are you will be hearing a lot more about them soon enough. Their first US release, From Here On In, is one of the most impressive first releases of this decade. The music was genuinely different and exciting to hear. Though subsequent albums have been released, South has really gone above and beyond with their most recent record – You Are Here. The songs are a little more pop inspired but still echo with layers of the kind of catchy harmonies that made them initially appealing. Though they played all over Austin during SXSW, their intimate performance at the Hilton Garden Inn was the perfect opportunity to hear their new songs up close and personal. The combination of acoustic and electric guitars gives the music a laid-back edge and compliments the Brit-pop aspect of their sound. Joel Cadbury’s tender voice still has the awesome ability to convey the depth of South’s lyrics and tug at your soul. Let’s hope they are gearing up for a massive US tour, because You Are Here needs to be experienced in a live setting as many times as possible.
The Whip – The UK gave SXSW the best music they had to offer this year. From solo acoustic artists to full on rock and roll bands, the performances from UK-based bands were spot on. The collective energy of one band in particular, The Whip, reached epic proportions during a performance at the Liverpool Showcase put on by the British Music Embassy. Their vigor rivals the dance-inducing energy of Austin-based Ghostland Observatory – minus the diva-esque vocal styling of Aaron Behrens. Guitars, a laptop and unstoppable rhythm makes The Whip one of those bands you won’t be able to get enough of. Their electronica/pop brand of music has the kind of up-tempo beats that gets your toes tapping and your booty shaking. It makes you feel alive and it makes you want to dance. And coming from a pretty hard-core lover of the kind of music that makes you want to do nothing but lay in bed and mope – that’s saying a lot. Although there couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people packed into the tiny little bar – The Whip transformed that show into a night out at the pub with friends, pints, and nonstop danceable action. Even though their recent release on the UK label Southern Fried Records is only available in the US via import or digital download – I suspect The Whip will be a permanent fixture in the US music scene before we know it. Honorable Mentions – There were so many unbelievable performances during SXSW this year and while there isn’t enough time in a day to give each one the words and credit they deserve, there are a few bands that merit at least a shout out and some ample play time on your music player of choice: Helio Sequence, Vampire Weekend, The Oaks, She&Him, The Wombats, Bodies of Water, Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears, Colour Revolt, Fleet Foxes, DeVotchka, Kristoffer Ragnstam, Cary Brothers, Von Iva and Foreign Born.
– Brigitte B. Zabak

Sharks and Sailors – Slow-Developing New Album

Sharks and Sailors - Slow-Developing New Album

http://www.houstonpress.com/2008-07-31/music/sharks-and-sailors-slow-developing-debut-album

A short drive down Washington Avenue, where condos are springing up like crabgrass and local trio Sharks and Sailors will release debut CD Builds Brand New at Walter’s Friday night, is all it takes to get a taste of what Houston once was, what it is and what it may yet become.

Like many who have grown up in and around the city, Michael Rollin (guitar), Phillip Woodward(drums) and Melissa Lonchambon (bass) have watched Houston change over the years, andBuilds Brand New chronicles their observations. After being away at school for several years, Rollin recalls coming home to an almost unfamiliar place.

“When I moved back to Houston — I was away for six years — this town was completely different,” he says. “It was right after the Enronfallout, and that had a really profound effect on me. I saw the city in a completely different light.”

One of the album’s underlying themes is Houston itself, Rollin says. The title references the frenzied pace of new development around the Washington corridor and elsewhere. But while the lyrics may articulate the trio’s feelings toward its surroundings, the music is a resounding representation of how far the group has come creatively.

Rollin and Woodward met in Corpus Christi, where the guitarist was attending college, almost a decade ago. The two shared a deep appreciation for bands like Shiner, Jawbox, Fugazi and Chavez — groups that dealt in both punk-rock volume and prog-rock complexity — and eventually started playing music together.

Unplugged guitar in tow, Rollin strums random chords as he recounts the past — specifically the first time he and Woodward met Lonchambon, then playing with well-remembered local band Panic in Detroit.

“After I graduated, I came back to Houston in 2002 and Phil eventually followed,” he says. “Phil and I started Voltes in 2003; it was just an excuse to play really loud. In fact, [Melissa] came to see our first show, which was really cool.”

As fate would have it, both Panic in Detroit and Voltes disbanded around the same time, and with the addition of a fourth member, guitarist Allen Hendrix, Sharks and Sailors was born. The early days were filled with jagged guitar riffs, sparse vocals and volume — lots and lots of volume.

A short, self-titled EP was released in January 2006, containing a few songs the Sailors’ dedicated fans had grown to love from the band’s live gigs. Soon after, Hendrix and the other Sharks parted ways, for reasons the remaining members would prefer to keep between themselves. Rollin, Woodward and Lonchambon had to reconnect creatively and didn’t struggle when their music took a different turn.

“We have old stuff that we’re thinking about busting out just because it’s still credible, like ‘Battle’ or ‘Topple,’” says Woodward. “We haven’t played either of those songs in a long time. It’s just [that] after we wrote ‘Cliffs’ and ‘Rickshaw,’ the band just kind of took off in another direction, and we’re really happy with it.”

Even while going through the lineup change, the group’s instinct was to keep writing. “I think it’s an unspoken, rhythmic capability that we all have,” says Woodward.

“When we first started, it was all about volume and busy-ness and lots of notes — which is cool, but now it’s kind of like that less-is-more type of approach,” says Rollin. “We just wanted more space. Melissa’s got really great vocals; they’re very evident on the album. But if you don’t leave space for them, they kind of get lost.”

Now it’s Lonchambon’s turn.

“When we started the band, we didn’t know if we were going to have vocals at all,” she admits. “We had to experiment for a long time. But I think we have a better idea of what we’re doing now, especially when we went to record. Over time, I figured out that I had to really sing — not fake-sing or half-sing or whatever. I feel a lot more comfortable with it now.”

Builds Brand New finds Sharks and Sailors settling just fine into its new arrangement. They agree the changes they made, both musically and otherwise, are doing wonders for their sound.

“Melissa gave us that melodic balance that we needed,” Rollin says. “Phil and I have a kind of real rhythmic, angular dissonant approach to writing, but she helped to complement the melodic part and just filled it out perfectly.”

Despite the fact that Sharks and Sailors’ fans have been craving new material for years, the band opted not to leak any songs before the album was finished so each track got the attention it deserved. With Builds Brand New finally complete, their long-term preparation has yielded an album whose every song reflects the band’s deep connection to its music. The care Sharks and Sailors invested in the material is readily apparent, as is the members’ deep connection to their ­hometown.

“The whole concept behind [the album] is kind of loosely based on the things going on in Houston lately,” says Rollin. “It’s really about how things are being torn down just to build it all new again. Which sometimes is good, but Houston always seems to be struggling for its own authenticity and identity.”

These days, when instant gratification seems to be society’s default setting — whether in music, architecture or anything else — it’s refreshing to see there are still some people willing to take the time to get things just right. Noting fans often tell him they still listen to that 2006 EP, Rollin says he hopes Builds Brand New meets a similar fate.

“It was important for us to make an album that you could put on in four or five years, or even in a couple of years from now, and it would still sound somewhat current,” he says. “Shelf life and longevity are things we really strive for.”

– Brigitte B. Zabak

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

From the very moment that Elbow began making and producing music, the world became a better place. Their debut release Asleep in the Back is one of the most impressive first releases any band has ever created. Their sound, from its inception, has been a striking showcase of emotionally charged poetry accompanied by soft and sophisticated rhythm. Every album since that 2001 release has maintained a constant level of musical integrity and lyrical freshness. Elbow’s latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, continues along their established trajectory with songs that highlight Guy Garvey’s raspy, but complex voice. Though the overall feel of the album holds true to the essence of Elbow, the band has definitely added a new layer of substance to their music. Garvey’s words still draw attention to themes of love and loss, but this time around there is an aura of contentment to their spirit. There is a subtle sense of humor that seems to be woven into their songs; a friendly sort of punch in the arm as memories of old times and old friends are remembered. There is a nice ratio of familiar chords and harmonies to innovative additions of musical texture. “The Bones of You” integrates jagged, pounding melodies whereas “Grounds for Divorce” has a lazier, blues-inspired edge to its sound. The Seldom Seen Kid is more than beautiful poetry and novel instrumentation – it’s a heartfelt reminder to stay the course, regardless of the hardships; and to respect the integrity of emotion.

– Brigitte B. Zabak for Amplifier Magazine [May 19, 2008]

Motion Turns It On – Turned On and Tuned In

Motion Turns It On - Turned On and Tuned In

Every city, large or small, has nurtured some incredible bands and sent them out into the wild. Houston, Texas is a strange anomaly in the respect that it is so unbearably huge, but at a superficial glance there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the ways of an indie rock ruckus. Chances are when someone hears music coming out of H-town, they are listening to Beyonce, the late, great DJ Screw, or Mike Jones. Unfortunately, many people may not know that over the last few years, a subculture of driven, gifted, and innovative artists have emerged in Houston and are performing original music that is polished and unpretentious.

Motion Turns It On is one of a handful of local bands that are taking their homegrown sound out of Texas and sharing it with the rest of the world. MTIO is a quartet of quirky and lovable gentlemen from the suburbs of Houston. Their sound is a rambunctious combination of haunting calm and poignant cheer and their first EP Rima is a truncated taste of their tremendous ability. Persistence and determination definitely pay off when it comes to MTIO. Having grown up in the same North Houston neighborhood, the guys have had plenty of time to get to know each other well. In the summer of 2001, a couple of them decided to get together and make some music. Since their inception, MTIO has gone through a band member or two, but have settled comfortably into their current structure. Regardless of the band’s formation, they have consistently created delectable and novel noise.

One of the reasons their music sounds so fluid and familiar is a direct result of the amount of time the guys took to themselves before unleashing their rock madness to an audience. Drummer Steve Smith talks about how their extended practice sessions contributed to the overall feel of their music. “We’ve gotten good at playing music with each other. I feel like we’ve gotten a little head start over most bands. We’re just now starting to get out there and play and we’ve already managed to get our sound together really well – instead of going out and playing and figuring it out later.”

They definitely have their sound together and the confidence and maturity that the band members exude makes their music that much more enjoyable to hear. The process they go through to create each melodic morsel is a calculated method that starts with something simple and evolves into a complex piece of instrumental fury. Even explaining their collaborative writing process is a joint effort. Guitarist Bill Kenny and keyboardist Andres Londono discuss the inner workings of a MTIO song. “The bulk of the time we’ve been together was our formative period – but it’s always based off of a small idea at first and then we build off of it. We don’t write in terms of regular song progression – we pretty much try to match up parts that we like and flow stuff together. It’s definitely a live writing process.”

It’s hard to imagine these guys ever having a small idea when the final product always results in a bold exclamation of rock savvy. From the moment the then-trio struck the opening note at their first live gig – they knew they had a good thing going. Although a friend, Londono was not an original member of the band. He actually became interested in what the other three guys had going on after seeing them perform at their first live gig. Kenny, with a mischievous grin, recalls that first show as his band mates listen on, “We were playing at this guy Travis’ house – and we were just a three piece then – I remember the first note that we played right when the first song started – knocked three pictures off the wall simultaneously. Yeah. It had a pretty good effect.”

Years after that gig, Motion Turns It On has found its niche as a band that is more cohesive and comfortable than it’s ever been. Having just finished a short East Coast tour that ran from Louisiana to New York, the guys will be settling back into Houston to eventually begin working on new material. There is a chance some of the new stuff will include an extra layer of goodness with the addition of vocals. Whatever the sound, listeners can be assured that these guys will continue to push the bar and experiment with rhythm, texture, and volume. They have already blown the door off the indie music scene in Houston and will no doubt be blazing a trail through your town soon.

–Brigitte B. Zabak for Amplifier Magazine

Sia – Note to Self

Sia - Note to Self

One of the greatest things about music is its incredible healing powers – for both the singer/songwriter and the listener. For most emotional crises, mental breakdowns, or exuberant celebrations the right album can be found to make all the difference for a successful recovery. Like when a great love has just been lost, listening to Elliot Smith’s XO or Doves‘ The Last Broadcast can help soothe the beginning stages of heartache. Music is there when kind reassurances from friends can’t be enough to mend whatever is broken. Or when the healing process is finally complete and the only proper way to commemorate a comeback is musical solitude. There is a genuine comfort in knowing that the songs you listen to in times of despair are the product of the same heartache, hurt, and desire you feel.

There are also albums that inspire and help bring a person back from darker times. These albums are essential cornerstones to a different life. They speak about the tough times but, unlike the breakdown records, these songs illustrate the misery with strength, wit, and insight. So, when someone is ready to shed the yucky stuff and move upwards and onwards they can turn to albums like Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or the latest stunning release from Sia titled Some People Have Real Problems to help them gain a little gumption.

Sia Furler, a recent New York City implant, has been creating delectable pop music for almost a decade, both as a solo artist and as the distinctive voice behind the music of Zero 7. Though she may just barely be peeking out above the radar at the moment, she is on the brink of becoming one of those artists that everyone goes on and on about. It’s fair to say that with the two captivating albums she has already written (Healing is Difficult – 2002 and Colour the Small One – 2006; Sia also recorded a live album, 2007’s Lady Croissant), Sia is someone people should have taken notice of years ago. Her albums are like diary entries set to music and every song is a reminder of some past incident that has helped shape the remarkable person she has grown to become.

Sia’s ability to strike at every chord of your heart with songs that range from painfully raw to wickedly hilarious is a testimony to her unrivaled musical integrity. Her latest release is a delicate reminder to stay grounded in the midst of rising stardom. “It’s like a note to self – a reminder. Like we would be in the studio and people would come in or I would come in with these bourgeois problems, like the traffic was shit today and somehow, I don’t know who started it, but it’s like – ‘People have real problems and all this small stuff is inconsequential. Like, some people don’t have lungs or a mum and none of this really matters in the grand scheme of things.’ So I to try to make notes to myself and what better way than to name your album that. So when people ask you about it you can remind yourself why you wrote it in the first place.”

One of the most intriguing things about Sia is how naturally music seems to flow through her. Her songwriting and singing allows her to communicate her experiences to herself and we all benefit from that marriage. Her buttery and poignant voice is like clay; it molds itself to fit the lyrical emotions of her songs. Her personality shines through her vocal chords as fluidly as they do through her words.

Although Sia has a few musical influences here and there, she seems to gather a lot of inspiration and creativity directly from her immediate experiences. “I don’t know. Probably whatever has happened that day? I’m sure it would be part of my history, but I’ve never really thought about it. I do know that I only had a couple of cds growing up. I had the Jackson 5’s anthology, Jeff Buckley’s Grace. The first few records I bought were The Bangles, Terence Trent D’Arby and Soul II Soul. I listened to pop music as a kid, so I listened to what was on the radio or on the TV. My parents were in bands – like rockabilly bands – my dad was in a blues band at one point and my mom was in a band called Girls at Play which was a play off a family friend’s band Men at Work. And the voices I loved growing up were Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Buckley, Lauren Hill, and Cindy Lauper. I am sure it was a plethora of different things.”

The new album is an enticing mixture of sweet and sour melodies. Some of the songs make you giggle, some make you think, but mostly the songs on Some People Have Real Problems make you feel like trying again. Songs like “Little Black Sandals,” with its gentle truths and soulful harmonies, gives its listeners the permission to stand up and reclaim themselves.

Really, all three of her albums act as a sort of chronicle of her experiences with love, loss, and life. They are the truest expressions of the roller coaster of emotions that people endure. There is an album for every kind of experience from heart break to healing. And although Sia is more involved in the creativity and quality of her work than the analyzation of it, a close friend of hers gave a nice overview of her records over the years. His interpretation of her latest release is pretty spot on. “I would never describe my work, but this friend that has known me this whole time, the other day told me he did a little bit of analyzing. And I thought it was actually really interesting because I never really thought about it. He said with this last one- this one is just like saying good bye to all that history and like walking away from shit stuff and walking towards good stuff. He said with this album there was a kind of serenity about it. “

There is serenity to Some People Have Real Problems and that is because Sia is in a place where she is ready to embark on new adventures and embrace exciting changes. She is exactly what modern pop music has needed these last few years. Her sound is palatable enough for a wide array of audiences, but still maintains a level of artistic integrity and quirkiness that allows her to remain real to her fans. Her experiences, but more importantly her choices, have lead her to the path she is on now. And if she ever had the chance to go back in time and impart a bit of wisdom to her younger self, a more insightful Sia would simply say, “Do it all exactly the same.”

–Brigitte B. Zabak for Amplifier Magazine