Pop's offshore incursion

Special to The Times

There was a lot of focus on U.S. politics and the national economy at the 17th annual edition of the South by Southwest Music Conference, which is still the country's most high-profile convention for promoting new talent.

But many of the acts that generated the most buzz during the five-day lineup of 1,000-plus bands came from outside the country -- starting with New Zealand garage-rock groups the D4 and the Datsuns.

Each played a raw, unpolished style in the vein of the White Stripes and Strokes, but their music's added urgency and grit seemed well suited for SXSW, where sweat, egos and booze traditionally mix during the fast-paced affair, which ended Sunday.

Two Canadian acts -- singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards and arty pop-punk band Hot Hot Heat -- stood out during the conference, which also featured established acts as diverse as country icon Willie Nelson, Brit-pop band Blur and sharp-witted singer-songwriter Liz Phair.

Garage bands were definitely the rage this year, a trend that felt like overkill by the end of the week. Many of the groups came up through the same Detroit scene that spawned the Stripes, which led to a quip by the singer of the black-clad Motor City band the Electric Six: "If this were the Olympics, [Detroit] would be like Russia."

The D4 immediately rose above the din when its Stooges-gone-surfing rocker "Get Loose" kicked off its set Thursday at Emo's, an oversized Texas bar that's like the Gilley's of punk rock. Midway through his band's outdoor performance the following afternoon at Spin magazine's private party, the D4's scruffy frontman, Jimmy Christmas, proudly reflected, "This has been more fun than we thought it would."

At the same party, Hot Hot Heat was similarly T-shirt clad and Strokes-like in appearance, but the British Columbia band was musically unique, with a Brit-pop sound that suggested the Cure playing punk.

The Datsuns had a buzz already going into SXSW, but its Friday night showcase won over those skeptical of the hype and of its members' fake names (see: Ramones, White Stripes). In concert, the band is a whirlwind of riffs and energy, like AC/DC without the shorts and the Clash with a happier attitude.

No single act generated the kind of attention that Norah Jones did at last year's SXSW, but Edwards fit the bill of a golden-voiced singer with starlet qualities and substantive music. Playing songs off "Failer," her Rounder Records debut album, the Ottawa native sounded twangy and melodic, like a female Son Volt. But her cover of Black Sabbath's "Changes" during a performance at Waterloo Records -- one of three gigs during the conference -- demonstrated singing capabilities that should make her appealing far beyond the alt-country realm.

Many of alt-country's biggest names -- Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks, Jay Farrar -- were also at the conference promoting upcoming albums. Though old hat by SXSW standards, each played new songs that were among their best yet, especially Williams, whose new single "Righteously" was one of the brightest instances of rapping at SXSW.

Usually, that would not be saying a lot, as hip-hop has traditionally not been SXSW's strong point. This year, though, several acts including Los Angeles's Aceyalone and New York's female rapper Jean Grae demonstrated the thriving indie hip-hop scene making it on college campuses and in rock clubs these days.

And old-school rappers the Jungle Brothers were among the innumerable acts that took swipes at U.S. policies in Iraq during their SXSW sets ("They can jack up prices all they want," Mike G said during the duo's set Thursday. "I'll put on my Adidas and walk").

Exactly how and when politics and music should mix was a hot topic of conversation during the conference's daytime industry panels.

Responding to Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines' highly publicized comments last week that she's "ashamed" President Bush is from Texas, famed Lone Star musician Lyle Lovett defended the president in Maines' hometown.

"I absolutely trust President Bush's sincerity, and at the same time trust there is more information [yet to come out]," Lovett, an acquaintance of the Bush family and Maines, said Saturday during an interview session at the Austin Convention Center. "Just because [pop musicians] have the forum to speak out doesn't mean they should."

As a member of a panel Friday, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills defended Maines, saying musicians "in a position of influence should walk the walk and talk the talk."

With last year's 10% decline in album sales, discussions on the state of the music industry were virtually as grave as the war talk.

Most panelists agreed that something needs to be done about Internet bootlegging and narrow play lists at corporate radio stations, but no one seemed to know the exact methods. With major record companies less active at SXSW, independent records stepped up as farm-team operations and discoverers of new talent.

Both the D4 and Hot Hot Heat were recently picked up from smaller labels by majors and lots more buzz surrounded bands signed to long-surviving indie rosters such as Sub Pop and ANTI/Epitaph.

Daniel Lanois, the Grammy-winning producer of Bob Dylan and U2 albums who has his own CD coming out on ANTI/Epitaph, summed up the tone of this year's SXSW in his conference-opening keynote speech.

"You hear a lot of stories [about the industry's slump], but there are always windows of opportunity when this happens," he said. "It's time to ignite, reignite or just plain turn up the flame of what you believe in."

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