It was a long, slow crawl up I-35 to Austin last night, but there was only one SXSW show, or showcase, on my to-do list: The 4AD Showcase at Central Presbyterian Church. It was a heavy line-up: M. Ward, Department of Eagles, St. Vincent, and Camera Obscura. While Matt Ward and Annie Clark play Texas frequently enough (they both just played ACL and Fun Fun Fun Fest, respectively), Department of Eagles (side project to critical darling Grizzly Bear) and Camera Obscura (from Glasgow, Scotland) don't play Texas very often, if ever.
After getting badged and bagged (relatively quickly), I high-tailed it to the Central Presbyterian Church only to be confronted with a line out the door and down the block. Long lines of hopeful music fans isn't uncommon at SXSW, but this was the badge line.
Everybody and their mother wanted to see M. Ward, who released the stellar Hold Time this year (read my review here), and blew up on the national radar with his other band with Zooey Deschanel (so jealous!), She & Him. But having seen Ward at ACL last year, and determined to see DOE, I stuck it out and waited for his set to be over. Predictably, the church emptied after Ward finished, and I made it inside.
The church was impressive — according to the church members selling bottled water for $1, the CPC is the oldest church in Austin, actually predating the creation of the Austin City Charter by two months in 1839. They've been hosting bands at SXSW for a few years (Lyle Lovett once played there and apparently loved the acoustics), and it's one of the bigger showcase venues, capacity-wise.
Department of Eagles took the stage (er, altar) without a lot of fuss, in direct contrast to their incredibly powerful concert — their haunting songs filled the church (Lyle is right, the acoustics are pretty good), and created echoes and textures that sounded remarkably like their awesome second record, In Ear Park (which was Music Editor Jeremy Martin's top album of 2008, and should've made my list). Most impressive was Rossen's ability to loop his vocals in real time, creating a huge-sounding backing choir of Rossens. DOE also performed two brand-new songs that would fit right at home on Ear Park. With Grizzly Bear releasing Veckatimest soon, it might be a while until the next DOE release.
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), however, is about to release her new record, Actor, and judging by the strength of her set at CPC it will surpass her debut, Marry Me. With flute, clarinet, sax, and violin in tow, Clark flirts with Disney cartoon arrangements before injecting them with off-kilter distorted guitars and some surprisingly muscular beats. Actor just jumped up a notch in my Most Anticipated Albums of 2009 mental list.
In person, Clark was Manic Pixie Dream Girl personified, alternating between standing stock-still and dancing like Seinfeld's Elaine Benes. At one point she gave a shout-out to her 8 and 10 year old siblings, and later, teared up during her second-to-last song. But the music never faltered, and her final song rode a wicked duel-saxophone-guitar riff that is still stuck in my head. Listen to "The Strangers," the first single off St. Vincent's upcoming album, Actor.
Camera Obscura was good, despite the sore throat of singer Tracyann Campbell. I've been fond of the Glaswegian band since hearing their early single "Eighties Fan," but after the technical wizardry of St. Vincent and DOE, they were a little anti-climactic. Camera Obscura's music is incredibly twee, owing much to '60s pop, particularly The Ronettes. But they've never been able to achieve the emotional depth of, say, fellow Glaswegians (OK, I just like typing "Glaswegian") Belle & Sebastian. Camera Obscura's tunes are catchy enough, but don't say much beyond "Hey Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken."
Stay tuned for more SXSW coverage on Curblog!