January 18, 2011
Another year, another crush of bands rushing to Austin in search of riches, blog buzz, or at least some free beer. With over 1300 acts officially taking part in the almighty music-biz rumpus, spotlighting a mere ten was tough. I could've just recycled my Bands Who'll Breakout in 2011 list —especially given all ten of them are all set for Texas— but decided to share the love amongst a new group of deserving humans. Here, then, are a handful of bands —a drop in Austin's ocean— not already earmarked for big things, but ones who've flashed undeniable potential in their (sometimes short) careers thus far.
Miami bros ANR —whose name contracts their initial handle, Awesome New Republic— sound quite a bit like that first TV on the Radio EP: big, soulful vocals, heaving synth sounds, and densely-layered productions. Only brighter, shinier, wackier: "It's Around You" steeped in R&B radio licks, "This is the Timing" all super-upbeat keyboard stabs; "Big Problem" a windswept, stadium-sized, gated-reverb new-waver anthem. Their debut LP, Stay Kids, is loaded with busy, itchy, ambitious sounds that play huge and expensive even though made on a punk-rock and homemade dime. It comes out, on micro imprint 10k Islands, March 29, just after SXSW. After the pair play Austin, I'm guessing Stay Kids' release will be met with a chorus of hype-startin'.
Even when she was singing over rolling piano chords, Kate Stelmanis's big, booming, brutal voice —the product of a childhood spent singing in the Canadian Children's Opera Company— sounded a lot like Nika Roza Danilova of Zola Jesus. Now that Stelmanis has gone from ivory-thumping singer-songwriter to goth-tinged electro chanteuse, the comparisons are bound to run riot. Stelmanis made her Austra debut in 2010, with an awesome 12", "Beat and the Pulse," on One Big Silence, a label helmed by Mike Haliechuk (10000 Marbles) from Fucked Up. Now, the Toronto-based belter has just been signed up to the mighty Domino empire, and an Austra full-length —not to mention an undoubted breakout— looms soon.
Colleen Green may have only two ultra-limited cassette EPs to her name, but on that magnetic tape she's already displayed considerable melodic clout. Matching her fuzzy, buzzy guitar strums to an almost comically-rickety drum-machine, Green cranks out ultra-lo-fi pop-songs owing a debt to '60s girl-groups and '90s bubblegum pop-punk; with comparisons to Dum Dum Girls and Cloud Nothings making all kinds of sense. Where her jams really shine are vocally, with Green stacking on multi-tracked parts into walls of sweet, sweet harmony. Two particularly killer cuts, "Green One" and "Y Do U Call Me?" (both found on the 4 Loko 2 Kayla tape), were tunes I verily flogged last year. In 2011, I suspect many more will fall under the Colleen Green spell.
4. Evan Voytas
Smooth Los Angelino dude Evan Voytas makes sashaying, lightly-funky, falsetto-warbled indie-pop. On record, he comes across as the laidback, West Coast, slightly-more-twee Twin Shadow: all retro synth sounds, cheesy drum-machines, gated reverb, wah guitar, polished pop hooks, and a love of, like, Phil Collins devoid of irony. Voytas is conversant in irony —an early EP was called The New Dynamic Sound of Evan Voytas— but he's disinterested in its self-defensiveness. His latest EP, Tomorrow Night We'll Go Anywhere comes filled with songs about traveling, making plans, heading places. Everyone moving, no one truly connecting. Voytas may be abusing musical sounds associated with 'seduction,' but he's authoring a study in modern loneliness.
There's a slight 'Hooray for Everything!' vibe to peppy party-starters Givers, who play polyglot indie-pop of the post-Vampire Weekend/Dirty Projectors type. All African-pop guitar links, busy percussion, glockenspiels, handclaps, and massed, exclaimed vocals, the Louisiana big band has the chops to pull of their Talking Heads-ish shtick, and the unironic, irrepressible exuberance to make it work. Their debut, self-titled, self-released EP —obscure in physical form, but file-shared into indie immortality— is full of righteous, joyous jams; Givers seemingly excited with the very idea of playing music itself. They're clearly having fun, and desperately want you to, too. Never has a band so proudly worn such bright smiles in their press shots.
Last year, Montréal's Claire Boucher issued two LPs as Grimes, both totally awesome. Geidi Primes and Halfaxa made a unique form of pop music: shadowy and goth, yet light-footed and electronic; funny and un-self-conscious, yet staggeringly beautiful and, somehow, devastatingly sad. Like many modern artists, Boucher gave her music away for donation, yet her sound stands out amidst the piles of sound-files. Listening to Halfaxa repeatedly —finding new wrinkles, new details, new sentiments, new ideas every time— I came to consider it one of the albums of the year, and I've grown to love it even more. Combined with Boucher's theatrical, conceptual stage-shows, Grimes is my silver-bullet special for SXSW 2011. See her or live a life of regret.
7. Hunx and His Punx
It's easy picking Hunx and His Punx after they tore up SXSW in 2010, but the building 'vibe' suggests a genuine Hunx Revolution is on the cards for Austin this year. Freshly inked to Sub Pop sister imprint Hardly Art, Hunx and his all-dame backing-band are truckin' down to Austin clutching a red-hot new LP, the March-due Too Young to Be in Love. The first proper album for the former Gravy Train!!! bro —following last year's awesomely-titled singles compile, Gay Singles— marks a sonic step forward, his once-scrappy garage-rock now gleaming in clear fidelity. But where Hunx is at home is on the stage, and now the showman gets to strut in front of a band growing tighter with every passing show. Basically, this means: good times, guaranteed.
8. J. Irvín Dally
After two freakin'-awesome EPs, 2008's The Basta and 2009's Kabukimono, and tours with Omar Souleyman and Gang Gang Dance, Los Angeles-based husband/wife pair Rainbow Arabia have finally finished their debut LP, Boys and Diamonds. Polished to a bright shine, the LP courts dancefloors; issued on cult German minimal-techno imprint Kompakt, no less. But the electronic finish doesn't dint the rickety, flea-market feel of Rainbow Arabia's polyethnic, globe-trotting, genre-spanning sound. Born when the duo, Danny and Tiffany Preston, bought a Lebanese casio set to Middle Eastern microtones, the sound is pop music of indeterminate culture; sounding at once African, Middle Eastern, South American, Caribbean, Northern European, and utterly American.
I was trying to avoid listing proven commodities, but the prospect of Tune-Yards on stage, at any time, is undeniable. Sure, because Merrill Nisker's awesome debut T-Y LP, 2009's Bird-Brains, proved one of the best albums of the 2000s. But her live gigs are another thing entirely. Whether working as a loop-creating one-woman-show or fronting a crew of crack jazz hands, Nisker is alive to the spontaneous, showing a mastery of those elusive qualities —making each show special, unique, of-the-moment, and alive in that very instant— that raise rock-shows above their tired traditions and generic routines. And the best part about a Tune-Yards SXSW appearance? That it suggests the second Tune-Yards LP is imminent! (Update: Whokill out April 19!)