After something of a rough start on Wednesday at SXSW, I headed down to Red 7 for the Terrorbird Media day show. This has become something of a tradition in recent years, in part because a friend of mine runs the publicity firm. I can always count on this event to feature several artists I want to see, which helps lighten the load at night when you're trying to prioritize showcases. More music options make me a happy lady.
My afternoon started with Screaming Females, a great New Jersey power trio. I caught them open for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists a while back and was floored. Formidable vocalist/lead guitarist Marissa Paternoster's deep wail offsets nicely against her prim, matter-of-fact demeanor, and her fast fingers prove that the hours spent jamming to Smashing Pumpkins records paid off. Folks who think Marnie Stern is the only female out there shredding should pick up Castle Talk. However, I don't want to exceptionalize Paternoster, as bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty bring such power and precision to their instruments and the group plays exceptionally well together. They also set themselves apart from many of their peers by foregrounding clean lines and instrumental proficiency instead of hiding under clouds of reverb. Great group. If they're playing in a town near you, see them.
Next up was Braids, a Montreal-based quartet that captured CNN's attention. I took note when they recently opened for Baths, a celebrated electronic artist on anticon. who played several shows during the festival. I think this group has a lot of potential. The harmonies recall the brightness and tricky intervals of Dirty Projectors, but shot through with mist and fog. Drummer Austin Tufts, who is one of three members who attends McGill University, is crucial to keeping the group's atmospheric pop propelling forward, as is lead singer/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston's light, dexterous strumming. A beautiful set. I'm looking forward to what follows after their debut album, Native Speaker.
A major bummer was that Lower Dens couldn't make their scheduled appearance at the Terrorbird showcase. Unfortunately, the band's van broke down in Arkansas while in transit. I've been convinced of singer/guitarist Jana Hunter's genius since Furniture Records released the compilation Sheets of Easter Everywhere and thought Twin Hand Movement was one of last year's stronger debut albums. If you hadn't heard of this moody, evocative band, this week was the time to catch up.
I was especially excited to see tUnE-yArDs, who closed the show. I'm pretty impressed with Merrill Garbus' sense of composition. Initially I was hesitant of Garbus' cribbing from Kenyan musical traditions, playing the ukulele, and staging puppet shows, because it seemed like so much white lady quirk. However, having sat with her music for some time, I marvel at how distinct it is, as well as how it's at once challenging and accessible. I'm also impressed by her ability to convey kindness in her lyrics, which also seemed evident in how generous and inviting she was on stage. Like many returning artists to the festival, she expanded her stage show to include two saxophone players and a bassist. Garbus herself had a looper, ukulele, and two floor toms, and it was great to see how much physical exertion is a part of her music. The two girls next to me grabbed shoulders and swayed to Garbus' hit "FIYA" with tears in their eyes. And while it may be weird for me to see people moved by a song featured in a BlackBerry Torch commercial, dammit if I wasn't moved a little as well.
After a quick bite, I strolled over to Headhunters to see local greats Follow That Bird. Like many Austinites, I'm at a loss for why this "post-Sleater-Kinney" trio isn't a bigger name. They make complex, moving, excellently articulated rock music and they've only gotten better as they've evolved. Matador believed in them enough to put them on the first volume of Casual Victim Pile. Might I recommend their Wooden Bones seven-inch to future converts?
After that, I hoofed it over to Skinny's Ballroom to check out EMA. I was really impressed with Erika Anderson's former band Gowns, who I caught at SXSW back in 2007. Gowns was an ominous, austere outfit prone to unsettling lyrical tangents and hairpin shifts in mood. Her new solo effort is not altogether different, which means it has the promise of greatness. I look forward to hearing the debut record, Past Life Martyred Saints, which comes out in May. Armed with a guitar and an assured stage presence and accompanied by a spindly bass, unpredictable drumming, and a creaky violin, this is the music you hear when you're entering into the eye of the storm. Exciting stuff.
I kind of wanted to sit for a bit after a day of standing, so I parked it at the Doomtree showcase at Flamingo Cantina. I specifically went to check out Dessa, though was happy to catch Four Fists (Astronautilis and P.O.S.'s collaboration), Mike Mictlan, and Cecil Otter. The phenomenal rapper/singer/spoken word poet really needed no introduction as she came to mic. I'm hardly alone in my belief that A Badly Broken Code was one of last year's best albums. The entire audience seemed in on the fact that Dessa is a star talent with something to say who is on the verge of being huge, as many knew all the words to every single song she performed. If I could pick one artist I want to be bigger than Kanye, it's Dessa.
Dessa's shows tend to make who ever is following her pale in comparison, so I hit up a few shows and ended the night with Baths. But I did have the pleasure of catching Sharon Van Etten and meeting up with Kjerstin. I was starting to fade so I only caught the first few songs. Nonetheless, Van Etten's elegant music was beautifully represented at Swan Dive and a great way to end the evening. This show was just one of several performances she booked during the week, and confirmed for many that she needs to be on our radar.