SXSW 2014: London Grammar, Mark Kozelek bring the volume down
AUSTIN, Texas -- As the South by Southwest music festival nears its end, quiet begins to beckon. It’s the natural result of having been assaulted by noise -- in clubs and concert halls, but also simply walking down many streets here -- for four long days in a row. Eventually, inevitably, the ear requires relief.
I found some Friday night, on the next-to-last evening of full programming at SXSW, in performances by London Grammar and Mark Kozelek. The latter show offered another welcome element: somewhere to sit.
A young British trio that’s already achieved big success at home, where it was nominated last month for a prize at the U.K.'s Grammy-equivalent Brit Awards, London Grammar plays hushed, electronic-edged love songs that can suggest Dido fronting the xx. And it was working hard in Austin to bring some of that buzz to an American audience, with five gigs over the course of four days, including a slot opening for Coldplay. (The group picks up a North American tour Monday and will stop at L.A.'s El Rey on March 25.)
London Grammar’s crowded show Friday at Stubb’s was its final one at SXSW, but the frenzy here hadn’t coarsened the band’s essential delicacy. It opened with a kind of incantation, as Hannah Reid sang long, low notes over Dan Rothman’s shimmering guitar arpeggios, then eased into “Hey Now,” also the first song on its album “If You Wait,” which is due out in the U.S. this month.
Dot Major, on keyboards and percussion, occasionally pushed the music toward hip-hop (or at least trip-hop) but kept the beats minimal enough that he could build them in real time on a drum machine; the songs don’t busy themselves with unnecessary parts. “We argue, we don’t fight,” Reid sang in “Metal & Dust,” about the slow dismantling of a relationship, and the lyric was a good reflection of the steady boil London Grammar maintained.
Later Friday at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church, in a showcase presented by the website Pitchfork, Kozelek played an hourlong set of rambling but stripped-down songs featuring only acoustic guitar, voice and drums. (The reverb provided by the church’s high ceiling played an important role, too, as did its mercifully cushioned pews.)
Best known, perhaps, for his band Red House Painters, an important specimen of the early-'90s indie-rock variant referred to as slowcore, Kozelek has spent the last decade working both as a solo act and under the name Sun Kil Moon.
The approach, though, is more or less the same no matter the format: He keeps his music spare so that there’s room to focus on his words, which run in long torrents that sometimes feel as though they weren’t even conceived as lyrics. There’s a data-dump quality to a song like “Carissa,” from the new Sun Kil Moon record, “Benji,” in which he states the time of the flight he’s taking to Ohio (“10:45 a.m.”) to attend the funeral of a second cousin who died in an accidental aerosol-can explosion.
At SXSW, Kozelek preserved that stream-of-consciousness vibe, rolling through tunes from “Benji” with a kind of unyielding momentum. But thanks to the drone-like aspect of his voice and Eric Pollard’s gentle percussion, he also turned the church into a private little world. When a stagehand appeared at one point to fix a speaker, his presence felt weirdly intrusive, a reminder of the hectic zone outside those songs.
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