by Abbie Kopf
The third day at SXSW started out as enjoyable as licking sweaty nards. We had RSVP’d to the “Hot Freaks” party where mopey indie sad sacks American Analog Set were set to play a show. I wanted to see them because the band is no longer playing together (save this show), and I felt like it would be poetic to witness one of their final performances. Unfortunately, thanks to the large crowd and unseasonably warm weather, it was like trying to watch the symphony from Dante’s Inferno, surrounded by sleazy, middle-aged men who were drunk off of free PBR.
Andrew Kenny, lead singer of the disbanded Analog Set, has started a folksier side-project, the Wooden Birds, which I hope is a little more upbeat. The Wooden Birds’ new album, Magnolia, will be released May 12. If you are a melancholic college student, check it out.
Since I was planning on staying at the Hot Freaks party for the better part of the day, I found myself with a little extra time on my hands. A summery indie pop group lured me into Emo’s Annex where I got to witness not one, but two fantastic bands—Fanfarlo and Port O’Brien.
Unfortunately, I only caught the end of Fanfarlo, but I found it hard to believe this sixer is from bleak London — they’re as warm and fuzzy as the Beach Boys and as talented lyrically and musically as any alt group I’ve seen at the festival. I was sick that I didn’t get to see more of them, but I cherished the brief moments I could drink my Corona and sway to the tickly electric guitar, nice-guy vocals, and throwback trumpet accessory sounds.
Following my too-brief tryst with throw-your-hands-up Fanfarlo, I was fortunate to catch another swinging act, Port O’Brien. I suppose that the SXSW gods were paying me back for that butt-fucking I got this morning at the Hot Freaks party, but Port O’Brien was a great treat, and probably earned my favorite band of the day award. (Dear Port O’Brien, I’ll mail you the plaque. Please hang it on your mantle. ) This foursome was formed in Oakland, California, where you’d imagine lead singer Van Pierszalowski penning songs next to a bonfire on the beach while he slurps oysters and smokes a joint. In fact, Pierszalowski found his inspiration while working in Kodiak Island, Alaska, in a commercial salmon fishing boat while enduring the oppressive cold and alienating confinement from human life.
Perhaps these stark geographic disparities helped the band stroll down the very fine line that most indie artists seem to walk over with the grace of a drunk co-ed. Port O’Brien doesn’t give into the solitary, drippy angst of their Alaskan winters, nor do they give themselves over to the Mentos commercial puff of California summers. Their folk-rock resounds with thoughtful and analytical lyrics that are coy without being evasive, while the jumpy, upbeat rhythms stay where they belong, in the background as highlights of the Nuevo-folksy sound.
It’s no wonder that this band has found favor with the likes of M. Ward, or that they have toured with indie icons such as Rogue Wave, Bright Eyes, and Modest Mouse. There are generally two categories of good musicians, those who revolutionize music and those who improve upon it. Port O’Brien isn’t changing the way that we hear folk or indie or pop, but they are making these genres feel like home again. They counter their disciplined and technical playing with a lighthearted romp around the folk music jungle gym. It’s just Alaska meets California, and it’s alright by me.
Since I was starting to feel a bond with the California sound, I braved the atrocious crowds at Cedar Street Courtyard to catch Bedouin Soundclash. Though this group’s been around for some time, their claim to fame was through Grey’s Anatomy, where their dreamy single “12:59 Lullaby” made everyone want to take a vacation. Their acoustic reggae sound could make a fan out of anyone, but especially the beach-minded. Remember that Sandal’s Resort vacation you took? Or your honeymoon in Hawaii? Or that time you went to Jamaica with a big group of your friends? Yeah, that’s where this music will take you. I find it peculiar that this oceanic band hails from the block of ice-shit above us, Canada. I have no idea how they’re inspired to sing this kind of music in the negative degrees, but more power to them.
The Soundclash seemed at home in the open-air Cedar-Street Courtyard, but from the first note I could tell that something was amiss. The lead singer’s voice, which always sounds like it’s seconds away from breaking down, actually started breaking down. Instead of sounding like a charming scratch on your favorite vinyl, lead singer Jay Malinowski sounded like a scratch on your favorite chalkboard. I think they were tired. They must have been, because this band performed for about 35 minutes and called it quits. I heard several “That was it?” when they left the stage, in what seemed like a premature exit.
Though their live show was indeed a little limp, a lively brass section contributed significantly to the band’s increasingly ska sound by giving some meat to the bones of the anemic Soundclash. I propose that SXSW had drained them, and they were simply trying to get through the show. I don’t hold it against them, however, because their creative reggae, power-pop infusion makes them a real treat for winter-weary or life-weary listeners. They’re newest album, Street Gospels, is generating some good buzz, so I’ll just believe they were saving up their good juice for their upcoming tour with No Doubt, and trying not to expend too much on us. Whatever the case, it was a solid wind-down from my day of poppy California-sounding bands, even if it did make me want to take the next flight to the beach.