SXSW 2014: Greys, Jessy Lanza, Vertical Scratchers help salve wounds
Music is not a competition, though at the South by Southwest music festival it often feels like one. A battle to discover the most talented unknown artist, for a choice spot in the queue outside of the Ty Dolla Sign gig, to get the most noteworthy ears into the club, to get signed, to land a song in an ad or at least leave with a free pair of Chuck Taylors from the generous folks at Converse. A war to avoid mentioning the word Doritos in a written piece about the glory of organized sound.
How does such competition handle the tragedy of Wednesday night, when the plot went off course after a suspected drunk driver plowed into a group of people, killing two and injuring 23 -- highlighting what many are now saying is a festival at its boiling point?
It’s a lot of baggage to carry when really all you want to do is rock but can’t help thinking about fate and the randomness of death. Luckily, music’s sole purpose is to help transcend such mortal concerns.
Maybe it was that tension that drove the sounds I heard to such heights on Thursday night -- a desire for the kind of brain-erasing that music does best. But for five hours, scraping guitar, crazy drums, minimal techno, punk rock fury, experimental collage rock and random thrills on the open-air Sixth Street festival center, volume and emotion plugged the bad vibes with great ones.
The most impressive? A Toronto hard-core punk band called Greys, whose combination of explosive distortion and harsh but pretty melodies suggested a band who helped invent the genre, not one exploring it 30 years after its birth. Performing as part of the Carpark Records showcase at the Parish, the four members, whose debut for the label arrives in June, aren’t so much reinventing anything as refining it to fit their needs, and the result was punk that felt born again, and got the tiny pit moshing.
Less abrasive but no more urgent was Vertical Scratchers, an L.A.-based two piece whose debut for the mighty indie rock label Merge Records is a joyous burst of poppy, insistent distortion. Featuring former Brainiac member John Schmersal, the band did songs from its excellent “Daughter of Everything.” Live, they added a bassist, which beefed up the bottom-end and added even more rhythm alongside drummer Christian Beaulieu.
A different brand of inventiveness drove Public Service Broadcasting, a London-based duo who performed as part of the British Music Embassy showcase at Latitude 30. The pair explored a strange communion: by sampling found-sound voices from old tapes for their verses and choruses, they constructed oblong rock and dance jams. It’s an interesting conceit, and the overflowing crowd was transfixed, not only by the found footage but by the way the pair surrounded these voices with structured sound.
One of the festival’s most buzzing solo acts, Jessy Lanza, offered a beguiling mix of deep, minimal bass music, rhythm & blues and her fine, if still developing, voice. Performing as part of the influential Berlin electronic music website Resident Advisor, Lanza offered skittering rhythm that she fed through a Roland synth while dotting out melodies on the keyboard. Many of her songs were from her pretty record from last year, called “Pull My Hair Back.” Still, her vocals were too schizophrenic, chasing way too many notes when a few would have sufficed.
Friday beckons. The sun is pushing through the clouds, a million or so notes lie in wait, anticipating that brief moment when the frequencies are let loose to float into the ears of those of us requiring a little more salve.
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