Pop & Hiss
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SXSW 2014: SZA, clipping and EMA find a heart in noise

AUSTIN, Texas — The theme of this week at SXSW has been chaos and exhaustion, both literal and metaphorical. After Thursday morning's tragedy, which left people here unsure if they should even care about music and drinking anymore in the wake of it, the showcases Saturday night had a definite feel of "We all just want to go home now." 

For those who stuck it out, though, a few fine sets were to be had. Their blend of violence and soul seemed an appropriate wrap-up to a week dominated by heart-rending news.

Kendrick Lamar's label Top Dawg Entertainment has a few major new stars in its stable, including the chart-topping ScHoolBoy Q and Isaiah Rashad, each of whom played stellar showcases this week. But perhaps the most enticing new find for the label is the New Jersey-raised singer SZA, an experimental R&B vocalist whose Saturday set at Bungalow proved TDE has ambitions well beyond L.A. rap.

PHOTOS: Scenes from SXSW 2014

SZA performed with Lamar during his headlining iTunes Festival showcase at the Austin City Limits event earlier in the week, adding her resonant hooks to fan favorites like "Poetic Justice." But on her own in an Okayplayer showcase at Bungalow off Rainey Street, her own material shone. "Ice Moon" had a pleading, immediate chorus — "Show me the way to your hiding place" — whose spacey production mirrored the feeling of uncharted territory in the lyrics.

SZA is an implicit female counterpoint to TDE's dude-heavy roster. Her radiant vocals, coupled with these stellar ambient slow jams, will open up a whole new world of musical dialogue for the label. Even though she had to stop one song after feedback issues swamped the stage, when her band played it a second time, it hit harder. She's the next star on the label, and if there's a stronger crop of music coming out of any label in any city on the planet, I haven't heard it. 

Back on 6th Street, the L.A. noise-rap combo clipping made a blustery case of its own. The band came from out of nowhere to a Sub Pop deal and immediate ubiquity around town. It's an enticing pitch — think Wolf Eyes or Einsturzende Neubauten fronted by a limber wordsmith like Busdriver or Nocando, with a bit more of a backbeat. Death Grips comparisons will abound, but clipping is at once more traditionally hip-hop and more orthodox noise band at once.

The crowd at 512 seemed split on the band. A lot of rap heads rushed the stage during an opening a cappella when it was clear they were dealing with a total pro in frontman Daveed Diggs. But their productions — bit-crushed harshness with intervening sub-bass and kick drum — divided the room. Many fans up front seemed to feel it in their marrow and freak out for it. Others split for the bar at the blast of feedback.

PHOTOS: Concerts by the Times

There’s a lot of promise there, but with mainstream rap already plenty noisy and weird, they might have veered too far into plain antagonism. It’s easy to make an insane ruckus with a bank of effects pedals. The best noise bands know open space is even more important.

The singer-songwriter Erika Anderson, who performs as EMA, knows that well. A onetime L.A. noise-folk artist in the band Gowns, her recent move-up to Matador has refined her sound, which approximates Courtney Love fronting the Velvet Underground and all the regal bluster and sexual politics that implies.

Tracks from her latest album, “The Future’s Void,” ably incorporated heavy synths into her I-wear-sunglasses-for-my-midnight-indoor-showcase sense of impenetrable, must-watch cool.

Though Anderson was obviously fighting off a cold, her set heaved with distorted violins, reverb-soaked drum samples and her own dispatches from the front lines of desperate, burned-out young America. The highlight, though, was her centerpiece single “California,” which needed little more than a single drone to set its mood of small-town weirdo camaraderie.

“Gimme the places, I’ll give you the names / Wasted away all alone on the plains / What’s it like to be small-town and gay / [Expletive] it baby, I know you’ll never change.”

As she sang it, she tied her microphone cable around her neck in a noose. It looked like death but felt like life.

ALSO:

SXSW 2014: Willie Nelson drops by to jam on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live'

SXSW 2014: Lil Wayne, EDM and the future of African digital music

SXSW 2014: Lou Reed tribute at the Paramount mostly rises to the challenge

PHOTOS AND MORE PHOTOS: Concerts by the Times PHOTOS: Unexpected musical collaborations PHOTOS: Musician feuds: The dirt & details

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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