Day one of Austin's SXSW Music fest was about seeing bands from around the world, day two was about seeing bands from wildly disparate genres. We saw garage rock, alternative folk, dark dreampop, singer-songwriters, and 60s-girl-group-throwbacks in a span of four hours–read below the jump for our musical highlights!
Austin band Feathers might surprise you. If you go to a Feathers show expecting just to dance to heavy electro-pop, Anastasia Dimou's surprisingly haunting vocals will make you stop and listen. But if you go expecting to watch four female singers harmonize sweetly over their instruments, you'll wonder if you accidentally took drugs and wandered into a rave. The band's Tumblr inspires many of the same adjectives as their music: unnerving, mysterious, glamorous, colorful; so it's a good place to get to know what makes Feathers tick. Their first album comes out this year, so keep an eye out, and expect the unexpected.
For fans of: Cocteau Twins, Austra
Austra fell prey this year to several circumstances outside their control: Their venue was serving free drinks and their fans consequently turned into a bunch of douchebags. But! That's not the band's fault! And they're still SO GREAT! We've been fans since Austra's practically-perfect-in-every-way debut record Feel it Break came out in 2011, but we'll try not to begrudge them becoming wildly popular. Even if they've apparently become popular among elbow-throwers and drink-spillers.
Lead singer Katie Stelmanis, the queer would-be opera singer (she was classically trained and performed in the a children's choir) and former member of Galaxy, performs dark dreampop that often deals with the search for humanity in an increasingly robotic world. The shows themselves always feel more like vivid dreams than performances, as the band's costumes and light shows integrate into Stelmanis' powerful, hypnotic vocals. Feel it Break was nominated for the presitgious Polaris Prize in Canada, so whatever this band does next is going to be highly anticipated and, you know, probably really, really good.
For fans of: Zola Jesus, The Hundred in the Hands
From a packed warehouse near the water, we ran to a tiny showcase in a hotel conference room, where Chic Gamine, another band full of talented Canadian women, was holding court with their soulful 60s girl-group doowop. Chic Gamine was one of my favorite discoveries from last year's SXSW (Thanks, NPR!), and their sound has aged to perfection. The four young women in the group still stun with their bluesy vocals that transcend their stature and era, and their instrumentation has gotten even tighter. Their music will transport you, certainly, but their vocals are a little sharper and percussion a little heavier than they were letting girl groups in the 60s get away with. Add in some French pop and an electric guitar, and you've got a throwback band with its eyes on the future.
For fans of: The Angels, The Wailin' Jennys
JENNY OWEN YOUNGS
Directly after Chic Gamine in the same space, New York singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs played a short set of songs accompanied only by her guitar and her deadpan crowd banter. Youngs recently completed a project she calls "Exhibit," wherein she traveled to different museums around New York and wrote a song a week for 8 weeks about her experiences. Exercises in rushed songwriting tend to reveal musicians' ethos more clearly than projects they have time to tinker with, and the songs Youngs performed from the project were barebones stories of loneliness and departure–no surprise to followers of her lengthy career to date. This show felt more like a teaser than a full set, but it was enough to remind me that not too many songwriters sound like the same person in life that they do in song. Youngs is a rare bird, in both her quirky, so-honest-it's-awkward lyrics and her persona, and she's worth getting to know.
For fans of: early Regina Spektor, Jenny Lewis, Ingrid Michaelson
The last show of the night turned into two shows, in typical SXSW fashion. I went looking for the late-night set of alt-folk project Waxahatchee (pictured above) and stumbled across the tail end of a set by Atlanta garage-rockers The Coathangers. I'm new to the band, but appreciated the kick in the pants their gritty, howling house-show vibe gave me as my energy lagged. Their clothes were ripped, their screams were audible from the street, and the lead singer shouted "WE'RE THE COATHANGERS AND I HATE MY DAD!" as they slammed through their finale. It was a great palate-cleanser, no matter how anyone feels about their fathers.
Waxahatchee is also new to me, but so is she new to the rest of the world. Singer Katie Crutchfield started the project after her band P.S. Eliot broke up, and released an album last year that caught buzz and landed her a spot at this year's NPR Showcase, among her many other appearances throughout the week. Her plaintive, distortion-heavy vocals are usually sparsely accompanied by electric guitar and little else. As headphones music, this would be isloating in the best way; it's a heavy, full sound that fills any room, and Crutchfield's often melancholy lyrics lend humanity to her less-approachable guitar work.
For fans of: P.S. Eliot, Bad Banana.