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10 Bands to Watch at SXSW 2012

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January 24, 2012
Trying to work out who to watch amidst the crush of SXSW can be headache-inducing. With thousands upon thousands of bands descending on the overwhelming orgy in Austin, trying to find names in the phonebook-sized roster of Performing Artists can be too much for most. Which is why you're lucky to have me. Whittling the masses into list-form is an art I long ago learned, and, here, two months out, are some undeniable highlights. Oh, and, as a general rule, I avoided acts already on my Bands to Watch in 2012 list; needless to say, the likes of Bleached, Nite Jewel, Trust, and U.S. Girls are well worth your watching. Otherwise, dare not to miss...

1. Beach Fossils

Beach Fossils
Captured Tracks
Brooklyn jangle-pop heroes Beach Fossils have held back in recent months, with members tending to side-projects Dive (Zachary Cole Smith) and Heavenly Beat (John Pena). Neither related-band apple has fallen far from the tree; with the jangle of Beach Fossils reflected in the bands they've spawned. Dive and Heavenly Beat are both en route to Austin, so it makes sense that Beach Fossils, too, would sign up to play a few parties. But there's something bigger brewing than mere between-LP side-projectory. Beach Fossils themselves have been hard at work on the follow-up to their 2010 self-titled debut. Given the 2011 EP What a Pleasure was particularly pleasurable, expectations for the album are high, and by SXSW time it may be officially on the release schedule.

2. Blouse

Blouse
Captured Tracks
Portland trio Blouse released an impressive self-titled album late in 2011 on Captured Tracks, but they didn't travel far beyond the PDX, with bassist Jacob Portrait off piling up frequent flier miles with his other outfit, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. With UMO winding down their seemingly-unending touring, now Blouse can take their spooky, spectral, washed-out electro-pop on the road. Their debut LP was defined by a jam called "Videotapes" (not to be confused with, um, "Video Games"), in which the retro-minded lyrics are matched with retro-minded production, which sounds as dusted and fuzzed as a third-generation VHS dub from the bottom of a shoebox; Charlie Hilton's voice caroling from under a spectral haze of nostalgic static.

3. Circuit des Yeux

Circuit des Yeux
De Stijl
Haley Fohr's fascination for the flawed sound of magnetic tape —she put out a seven-inch entitled "Ode to Fidelity," and had her third LP, 2011's Portrait, "mastered direct to VHS"— has meant many have focused on her music's surface. But peer past the lo-fi haze and Ms. Circuit des Yeux comes off not as sonic shaman, but emboldened, impassioned singer-songwriter. The 21-year-old ethnomusicology student has a deep, dark, belted-out voice that bares similarities to Zola Jesus, but a more telling antecedent is early Cat Power; those dark, spooked-out, haunted-sounding bloodlettings like Myra Lee. And, whilst CDY LPs are studies in tape-hiss, her liveshows pull away the veil to leave Fohr's ferocious voice at the fore.

4. Grimes

Grimes
4AD
I truly wasn't going to pick any repeat recommendations from by Bands to Watch in 2012 list; especially someone whom I highlighted at SXSW (and CMJ!) in 2011. But let's make this clear: going to Austin and not seeing Grimes is inexcusable. With the release of the almighty Visions —far-and-away the earliest and best contender for 2012's album-of-the-year— in February, Claire Boucher's performances will effectively amount to a celebratory coronation of a girl whose hour has come. Maybe being there for last year's SXSW would've been more special —catching a red-hot artist at the beginning of a rapid rise— but SXSW 2012 is officially Grimes' time to shine.

5. New Look

New Look
!K7
For a band that sounds like they could casually make a crossover into the straight pop world, Canadian duo New Look were weirdly overlooked in 2011. Though their bio makes them sound like an electroclash act —a model and her husband make catwalk-friendly electro-pop for a German label— their debut, self-titled set is far more elegant and earnest than retro-minded or ironic. Instead, their dark, stark, spartan take on the dancefloor-as-desolate-emotional-wasteland comes clearly steeped in the sounds of The Knife; with the sweet vocal tones of Sarah Ruba making them occasionally reminiscent of another post-Knife outfit, Niki and the Dove. Lord knows why the world didn't flip out over them; but you can do it all by yourself in Austin.

6. Peaking Lights

Peaking Lights
Domino
Husband-and-wife Wisconsinites Peaking Lights made one of 2011's more unexpected albums of the year. Issued early in the piece, 936 spent month after month slowly converting acolytes to its locomotive, steam-powered take on dubbed-out psychedelia; in which rattling drum-machines are blasted with bottom-end, draped in delay, and caroled all over by Indra Dunis. By the end of the '11, the once-barely-known band were freshly inked to indie powerhouse Domino, and hard at work on a follow-up album in which expectations now come into play and ambitions can suddenly be catered to. Peaking Lights will arrive at Austin with their second LP all but polished off (so to speak), ready to stake their claim as upwardly-mobile indie commodity.

7. Purity Ring

Purity Ring
Transparent
Three files. That's still the sum total of Purity Ring's career, a year after they came from nowhere with the mind-altering "Ungirthed." And it's still what drives the intense buzz that has built around the Canadian band; buzz along the lines of Best New Band, Breakout Stars, and Most-Awaited LP-makers. Each of their three songs (hear, also, "Belispeak") is unimpeachably great, and the fact that Purity Ring haven't released any more has meant there's no dilution of their impact. Whilst working on new jams with notable secrecy, the duo have toured hard, too, with grindin' Neon Indian supports and time in the fires of CMJ forging their live show into a weapon. And, by the time SXSW rolls around, maybe they'll have released a fourth song.

8. Quilt

Quilt
Mexican Summer
There's a jam on Quilt's debut, self-titled LP called "Utopian Canyon," and the title effectively serves as the band's MO. Straggling so late to the freak-folk party they feel like Espers/Feathers/etc revivalists, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston beardos evoke a mythical 1969 by way of 2004; creating idyllic audio environments in which finger-picked guitars, zoned-out percussion, and campfire caroling crests towards something pseudo-mystical. It's folk of the Hangman's Beautiful Daughter stripe; strange and straggling and lived-in and boasting lyrics like "language deflated the zeppelin of the conscious." If springtime shines on Austin in early March, Quilt's sunny disposition will seem like a suitable soundtrack.

9. Tashaki Miyaki

Tashaki Miyaki
Tashaki Miyaki
The appetite for 'mysterious' Bandcamp acts remains endless, as long as the jams are good. And Tashaki Miyaki sure make good jams. The band's Japanese handle is deliberately misleading; both in biography (turns out they're the work of an anonymous boy/girl pair of Californians) and sound. The duo make strung-out, sunbaked jams openly evoking Mazzy Star and The Jesus and Mary Chain, with jukebox tropes —see: covers of The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly— run through canyons of echo and mountains of heartache. Their manifest destiny is to end up on a Sofia Coppola soundtrack one day, but, 'til then, Tashaki Miyaki's SXSW shows will mark their first major live performances.

10. Tearist

Tearist
Post Present Medium
It's telling that Tearist's debut LP is a live album. In 2011, the Los Angeleno duo turned out Living: 2009-Present, a collection of primitive, cassette-taped recordings capturing them on stage and on fire. Where SXSW —and indie music circa 2012 in general— is filled with home-recording projects usually either ill-suited or ill-prepared for live performance, the stage is where Tearist shine: Yasmine Kittles scaling mythical-frontman status via violent screams and bodily contortions that seem equal parts performance-art hijinks and primal catharsis. The pair —Kittles and machine-mangler William Strangeland-Menchaca— have been working on their first studio LP, which may or may not be on release schedules by SXSW time. But even if there's a play-at-home version on its way, live is where you have to see Tearist.
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