So, I made it through this year’s South by Southwest festival without any sunburn, hangovers, or blisters on my feet. Don’t know about you, but I call that a success!
My roommates and I spent most of Wednesday in the small town of Gruene, a quaint old village with a grist mill (now a restaurant) and a dance hall where we saw the Drive-By Truckers play. The weather was perfect, the Truckers were good, and Ellie could tell you more about it. It felt a little weird going away from Austin on the first day of SXSW, but I was comforted knowing that Thursday and Friday belonged to me. (Muahahaha) I spent a couple of days poring over every free/unofficial show list I could find to compile a near-perfect schedule. Honestly, I can’t imagine that having a badge or wristband would have made my week any better. Everywhere I went, there were no lines, no hassles, no worries, and best of all, it didn’t cost me anything.
I took it easy on Thursday. This year was my very first SXSW, something I’ve been looking forward to for years, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect as far as crowds, lines, RSVPs, food, drinks, and bathrooms. The French Legation Museum was hosting a free Lawn Party that looked like a pretty good bargain for the day, with a lineup that included The Antlers, Zola Jesus, Holly Miranda, and The xx. When my roommate dropped us off at 1:30, Ellie and I walked right through the gates and found virtually no crowd at all.
The Antlers got a little bit of a late start around 2:20 after what seemed like an endlessly frustrating sound check. I had listened through their album Hospice a little while back and wasn’t very impressed despite all the good press I’d read, but I was still curious to see what they would be like live. They used a lot of synth and feedback to create an ambient backdrop for their moody little dramas. I held my breath for the lead singer as he reached for ever more impossible high notes. “Swoony,” Ellie observed after the first song. Despite my skepticism, I have to admit they were pretty good live, and I might give them another chance.
I spend most of Zola Jesus‘ set standing in line for the bathroom, and that was probably for the best. Harsh? Not my thing. I had heard one of her songs before and thought it was pretty decent. She has a big, commanding voice and some doomy synthesizers, but all of the songs sounded exactly the same. The day was all wrong for her, too. It was gorgeous and sunny, she played on a tiny stage at the bottom of a grassy hill surrounded by historic buildings and a stone fence. She wore all black and flailed around with more energy than the music really called for.
We walked a couple blocks south to the Eastbound and Found stages on East 6th Street, just in time to catch The Morning Benders, a band I was really excited to see. I think I like them; their new album Big Echo was produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and they do sound a little like Grizzly Jr., heavy on the bass, four-part harmonies, and dreamy nostalgia. I was shocked to see how young they were — I’ve seen pictures but I didn’t think they were actually that young. Like fetuses. But really adorable Cali pop-playing fetuses.
We walked around 6th St. to ogle the craziness for awhile, but never made it back to the French Legation. Instead we walked almost all the way home before stopping for margaritas and some Tex-Mex.
Friday was a whirlwind. We had quite a bit of trekking around town to get from one show to another and were blessed with some impeccable timing. Started out at 1:00 pm in the parking lot of Waterloo Records and saw folk rock legend John Hiatt play to a full crowd (also, a much older crowd than we had seen at SXSW so far). Hiatt played one of the more fun sets I saw last week; he’s an old pro who had a great supporting band with him. Ellie and I especially admired his hot collection of guitars that he and his other guitarist rotated throughout the set.
Next, we saw Shearwater, a band I don’t actually like but wanted to see live anyway. At this point, the size of the crowd was cut in half. Jonathan Meiburg’s incredible, theatrical voice was just as impressive in person as on record, but while the songs were pretty, they were also kind of dull. I’m not up on their discography, but I do know they played a good version of “Rooks” from the album of same name.
What I was really looking forward to that day was Miles Kurosky, the former lead singer of San Francisco (and Elephant 6) band Beulah. The crowd thinned way down — apparently John Hiatt was going to be the most popular act of the day — which made me a little sad for Kurosky’s first solo outing. A gaggle of teenage girls behind me wondered aloud which Beulah songs he would play. Answer: none. I was surprised to find that Miles can actually rock pretty hard. Never thought I’d say that. Beulah was always kind of fussy in its grand pop arrangements but looking back, I realize I underestimated that they did, in fact, rock sometimes. The sound guy needed to turn his mic up; the vocals were almost completely buried. Halfway through Kurosky’s set, he stopped to apologize, “I feel like I’m not giving 100%…I have this funny disease…” alluding (I think) to some of the health problems he’s struggled with for the past couple years. Apparently he felt awful for the entire Waterloo set, but hung in there until the end, despite looking increasingly distressed.
From there, we had an hour to get down to End of an Ear, a small record shop in South Austin. Thanks to a little ride and a lot of walking, we made it home, changed clothes and shoes, and arrived at End of an Ear just in time to see Efterklang start their set. Efterklang is an ethereal art-rock band from Denmark who make dense and dreamy songs like Sigur Ros, but with the song-oriented accessibility of Sufjan Stevens or Vespertine-era Bjork. They have a sprawling, spacious sound, so I was very curious to see how that would play in a tiny record shop. There were six of them crammed into a corner, but they had great attitudes, marveling over their first in-store performance (ever), playing to more intimate crowds outside their own country, smiling and cracking up the whole time. Although they claimed their set would be very stripped down, I couldn’t tell a significant different in scope. Efterklang was probably the most pleasant surprise of SXSW for me. The new material sounded crisp in the small space. I don’t know how many fans were in the audience, but the Danes won over the whole room by the end. A couple guys who rushed in the door as the band said their final goodbyes begged for one more song. “We just got here!” they yelled, and the band happily obliged them for a brief encore.
From there, we made it over to Home Slice on South Congress, where the pizza joint was hosting their free Music by the Slice event. We were there to see Lou Barlow, but showed up in time to catch the Cave Singer‘s entire set. And pizza. Man, I love Lou Barlow. It should have been weird to see him at something like SXSW. Although not exactly a household name, he’s been a mainstay in the indie world since Dinosaur Jr.’s first album back in 1987. And I don’t even know if Dinosaur played South by this year, but I did spot J. Mascis earlier in the day behind the Waterloo stage.
Lou Barlow’s performance style isn’t really suited to the 5-song set format of SX; you really need two hours in a laid-back setting where people can call out requests and let him fumble around a bit, telling stories. His set that night was a nice happy medium; he took a lot of requests but stuck only to songs he knew well. I was front and center, and had too many favorite moments to name, but at one point he announced, “So I read online that this song is terrible…” and then shrugged it off: “I have no filter.” He launched into “Take Advantage” from his last solo album, Goodnight Unknown. Also, nice to be in a crowd full of people who know him and his extensive catalogue. The audience wanted to keep him. He puzzled over how quiet and attentive the crowd was, in contrast with the rowdy Sixth Street parties he had played earlier in the week. “Welcome to South Austin,” someone explained. Because Barlow was playing Home Slice’s last show of the night, the organizers didn’t seem to care much about time limits. He played an extended set (lots of good old Sebadoh, too: “Soul and Fire,” “Brand New Love,” “Skull,” “Not a Friend,” “Willing to Wait,” and “Too Pure”), and even played a couple songs on ukulele after the crowd insisted on an encore.
We settled at Doc’s awhile to drink away the pain in our feet, and by 10:30 pm, we were ready for round two! We walked over to the Continental Club, where No Depression hosted a showcase, and saw the Deadstring Brothers play. We did a bit of dancing, admired the band’s collective hairiness, and then went home to collapse.
My SX experience on Saturday was unplanned and (pleasantly) unexpected. Ellie and I knew we wanted to catch a couple of acts at Auditorium Shores, where Deer Tick, Lucero, and She & Him would be playing later in the evening. I went downtown for a couple of hours to volunteer at the museum, and decided to do some impromptu wandering with a friend after I got off — it was fucking cold! And dark! And windy! And I was only wearing a thin dress with some sweater tights, but I braved the misery, determined to eke out some more enjoyment on this last day of the great SXSW. We rushed east of I-35 in the hopes of catching Austin instrumental band Balmorhea, but even though we were only ten minutes late, we caught the last song. Seriously, who runs ahead of schedule at a time like this?
Then we wandered up to the French Legation to see what was going on. Again we caught one final song, this time from Admiral Radley who, as my companion pointed out, sounded an awful lot like Grandaddy. (Aha! Mystery solved... that’s because they are Grandaddy, plus Earlimart. I knew I recognized Ariana Murray on keyboards!) Even though the wind and cold were getting increasingly dire, we decided to stick it out at least to see what the next band, Denmark’s The Kissaway Trail, was like. They weren’t bad, as far as I could tell from the one song we heard, moody, synthy, a bit 80s, (doesn’t hurt me that they were pretty Scandinavian boys with cool hair) but the cold sent us skittering away to a more indoor location.
We ducked into the inviting warmth (well, relatively) of Shangri-la and caught a couple of pretty excellent bands I’d never heard of. First up was the Treetop Flyers, a band from England with a rootsy, soulful, 70s soft-rock sound a la Crosby, Stills and Nash, Harry Chapin, with a little Van Morrison thrown in. I should have bought their EP that was on sale, but really needed to hold on to my last five bucks in cash until I knew what the food sitch was like. After the Treetop Flyers, Tape Deck Mountain played a noisy, percussive set with a lot of feedback and some good grooves that reminded me a little of a less-angsty Elliott.
We met up with Ellie at Auditorium Shores, but none of us realized they had pushed the showcase back by two or three hours due to the harsh winds. Expecting Lucero to start at 6:00, instead we got Kimya Dawson kicking off the whole shebang. I’m not crazy about her music at all, but she was gracious and charming enough, even though her hands were almost too cold to play the guitar. After that, a thoroughly bland and middle-of-the-road folk rock band called Dawes played. I felt bad for disliking them because they seemed like really nice guys. But at this point, it was clear that we would not last another hour outside in the cold waiting for Lucero to play, especially now that the sun was dipping below the horizon. We gave up the fight and headed to Fran’s for hamburgers and shelter.
And that concludes my SXSW! Highlights: Efterklang, The Morning Benders, Lou Barlow, and The Treetop Flyers.
So, what were your favorites this year?
The surreal part of having Lou Barlow play in my town, at my local bookstore, is how normal it seemed. The spacious bookstore, with its mismatched and shabby chairs, resident cat Mamacita, and handfuls of browsers wandering in to linger over books, actually proved to be the perfect setting for Barlow’s living-room charisma. Though he denies having any kind of showmanship, he has an ease and familiarity with a room full of strangers that can only be reached after nearly 25 years of performing. The show started at three-thirty in the afternoon, part of a new gig series started by bookstore employee David Swider. Because the event was early, free and open to the public (and on a game-day, no less), I worried the crowd might be restless or disrespectful, but aside from a few toddlers frolicking in front of the stage, which Barlow remarked at one point was “unbelievably cute,” the show was quiet and intimate.
He played the classics, mostly Sebadoh tunes from the Bakesale and Harmacy era, including “Skull,” “Rebound,” “Magnet’s Coil,” a valiant attempt at “License to Confuse,” which was aborted halfway through, “On Fire,” “Too Pure,” and “Willing to Wait.” He also played a couple of songs from the new Dinosaur Jr. album (as Dino was playing a show at Proud Larry’s later that night), due out in June, as well as a handful of new songs from his upcoming solo album. He did, upon request, play a lovely and hushed version of “Spoiled,” and made a lot of people intensely happy with the old favorite, “Brand New Love.” He took requests but turned several down, explaining that this was the first solo show he’d played in awhile and that many of the older songs had been written for his four-string guitar. One smartass shouted out “Zone Doubt,” which is actually a Lowenstein-penned Sebadoh song. I asked him to play the Folk Implosion song “No Need to Worry,” which he struggled to remember for a little bit, remarking to the audience, “You guys don’t mind if I do this? Just trying to figure things out?” He gave up and played another song, but came back later and played the first half of my request. “I really wish I could remember how to play this,” he said. He rounded out the show with “Love is Stronger” from The Sebadoh, and a “happy” song I wasn’t familiar with, that he claimed was the “resolution to the situation” of “Love is Stronger.”
Although he couldn’t really play any of the songs I requested, I was satisfied with the show; it reminded me why I’ve always admired this songwriter who is “so laid-back, but so uptight,” but also showed how he has evolved over the years. He’s older, wiser, more confident, and recently has started to stretch himself a little more vocally, reaching into the upper ranges. It was good to see him again, after so many years.
Sometime during 1997, my cousin made me a mix tape that changed my life.
An exaggeration, yes, but I doubt I would be the same music snob whose blog you are reading (or not reading) today if it weren’t for that tape! If I wasn’t pretty sure that the cassette is now hidden in the dark recesses of my attic somewhere, I would dig it out to offer a track listing. I remember it included songs by Pavement, the Silver Jews, the Folk Implosion, and Daniel Johnston.
Out of all the artists on the mix, The Folk Implosion was the only group to really stick with me through the years (although there has been an awful lot of Daniel Johnston floating around my house lately, due to my roomie’s full-on obsession with the man’s expansive catalogue).
The musician I have loved for over a decade undoubtedly owes a great debt to the influence of Johnston’s scrappy, home-made asthetic: Mr. Louis Knox Barlow, original (and present!) bass player of Dinosaur Jr., mastermind behind the now-defunct Sebadoh, so-called “Godfather of Emo,” a chief purveyor of the early-nineties lofi movement, The Folk Implosion (and its bastard incarnations, the punked-up big brother Deluxx Folk Implosion and later, The New Folk Implosion, of which Barlow was the only original member), and various “solo” projects including Sentridoh, Lou Barlow & Friends, and simply “Lou Barlow,” the man himself.
Did I leave anything out?
In his heyday, he could probably have rivaled Chan Marshall for sloppy live performances, on-stage breakdowns, and general erratic behavior. I’ve heard stories, like the one where Courtney Love shrieked at him (four months after Cobain’s suicide) “I always thought you would be the one to kill yourself!” And during one of the more harrowing gigs in the later days of Sebadoh, he smashed himself in the head with his own guitar, ran off-stage, but returned to finished out the show, a capella, with blood running down his face.
I thought he was pretty rad.
Some of those original Sentridoh recordings go back to his teenage years, and in them you can hear ideas forming for later Sebadoh tunes (for example, a slow, instrumental cut of III’s “Freed Pig,” or a more jangly version of Bakesale‘s “Give Up,” recorded years before either of those albums). There’s a warmth in the crackle and hum of the eight-track, the gleeful and spontaneous cuts of Lou and his sister Abby singing silly songs together, the way some of the raw recordings summon up the image of a lonely, awkward youth rushing home from high school to do the only thing that redeems all the blemishes, all the humiliations of adolescence. The songs are a like a lifeline. Listening to some of that stuff can also be a pretty terrifying experience: warped television noises bubble up to a surface littered with cats wailing and Barlow’s deranged chanting, often in his own made-up language. What the hell is a sebadoh, anyway?
If my discussion of Barlow’s music is a little unfocused, bouncing from one unrelated thought to another, it’s because his discography is like a story with no beginning, middle or end. The various bands and side projects were incestuous, containing more or less the same group of guys arranged in a number of different combinations. Some dropped out, some faded away, others created side projects of their own which later, inevitably, merged back into Barlow’s sphere.
As for the beginning of my story, the fascination started with the voice. I was in a high school fiction workshop, writing a story about a musician, and I had imagined for him the most beautiful, perfect male voice I could conjure in my mind. When I listened to my cousin’s tape and heard “Natural One” for the first time, I found the voice I’d been hearing in my head for weeks.
I’ve always maintained that Barlow is underrated as a singer — which is understandable; he has a relatively limited range, a voice too brittle to ever convey subtlety or slip easily into falsetto, and sings in a plain, no-frills style. His voice is always too low in the mix and generally under-utilized (the absence of harmonies, in particular, has always irked me). However, his voice is also rich, velvet soft, and smooth, with a particular note of melancholy that adds weight to whatever he sings. Even when his songs sometimes devolve into schmaltz (or when he writes ditties about masturbating “three times a day”), you really, really want to believe in whatever he says.
And it’s exactly that earnestness that has always endeared him to me, as a singer-songwriter and as a man. Sometimes it seems like he has no filter between himself and the rest of the world. He’s as likely to converse with a stranger about a paper cut on his finger as he is to confess the details of his meth-fueled hallucinations. He seems to get as good as he gives, too; he appears, in turn, delighted, hurt, offended, pissed off, gracious, and baffled by the things he encounters in life. If I have five friends who have met Lou Barlow, it seems they have each met five different men. His excellent website provides a glimpse into his compelling world; the scanned-in photos, sloppy construction paper borders, drawings, and hand-written updates all appear to be the works of a deranged scrapbooker. Unlike other websites that exist entirely in an abstract, virtual realm, Barlow’s exists in a very tangible place: his living room.
I met Lou Barlow once, outside the House of Blues in New Orleans, and it made my day. The Folk Implosion was there, opening for the Melvins, but because of my job at a Bourbon Street bar, I couldn’t go to the show that night. A very kind door-guy noticed me lurking near the entrance, hoping to catch of glimpse of my idol, and went to the trouble of having Mr. Barlow come out to chat with me. O House of Blues doorman, if you’re reading this, I think I owe you a favor, a great big kiss, or probably something much dirtier.
I’ve told this story so many times that it’s starting to wear thin and grow holes like an old security blanket. The details aren’t so important anymore; a lot of it involves me babbling awkwardly and generally putting my foot in my mouth (like asking him about fellow Folk Implosion member Jon Davis, not knowing that they had parted ways a year earlier in some mysterious, traumatic fashion, an event that allegedly left Barlow depressed for awhile). Although I did have the distinct pleasure of explaining to him what a body shot is. Seriously? A guy who has been in several rock bands over the course of twenty years and publicly admits to doing large amounts of cocaine and crystal meth needs to have body shots explained to him by a nineteen-year-old? After my explanation, he pulled an expression of horror and told me I was a “Bad girl!”
I wonder sometimes if he would remember me, the girl who educated him on body shots. Eventually, I had to continue my trek across the French Quarter to work, but not before practically forcing him to hug me. “I have to do this,” I said.
I don’t know how to end this entry except to say that Lou Barlow has my loyalty for life. That’s part of the reason why I never really got into Dinosaur Jr — as far as I’m concerned, J Mascis is just in the way. I know that means I’ve been robbed of several classic indie rock gems, but psychedelic rock was never really my thing anyway.
A lot of Barlow’s “music” is so rough and raw (or lazy, in many cases) that it’s downright unlistenable, but I’m willing to stick around for the good stuff. I maintain that no one can write a sturdy melody like him — one with a solid enough foundation that it can withstand many costume changes, punked up or stripped down. Take a song like “Two Years Two Days” from Bubble and Scrape; on the album it’s a distorted piece of chugging power pop, but I always hear the potential for a mournful ballad, with chiming pianos. Any song from the Folk Implosion’s sun-pop, electronica-tinged opus One Part Lullaby (one of my favorite albums of all time), could be taken and recast as a gently-strummed and naked folk song. I’ve heard live acoustic versions of many of these songs and they’re devastating (especially “No Need to Worry”) when all the synthesizer layers have been peeled away.
I’ll leave you with a couple of videos. The first is a live performance of “Legendary,” a song that Barlow has claimed was written about Davis’ departure from FI, but was later used (“Candle in the Wind”-style) as a tribute to Elliott Smith. And the second video, one of my favorite things, is a brief clip of Lou Barlow and Elliott Smith interviewing each other. And that, dear friends, is my not-so-subtle transition into the next entry’s subject…
Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.” Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me. Current top five? Can’t do it. My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic. There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects). But five solid choices? And what about top five of all time? Can’t do that either. There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!) perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.
Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify. The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change. I will impose no limits on number. There will probably be more than five but less than ten. Who knows?
Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.
So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):
1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos
3. Post, Bjork
4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey
5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion
6. III, Sebadoh
7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life. I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.
These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems. Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).
In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion. Until then, toodles.