SXSW Day 3: Pushing Fuck Buttons

Categories: SXSW

Day 3 of SXSW started with Village Voice Media's bash at La Zona Rosa. We were too busy "networking" with colleagues and freelance writers to pay close attention to the Black Keys and the Soundtrack of Our Lives, but the latter in particular impressed with their chugging, Scandinavian Neu! homage when we were able to focus on them for a good five minutes.

After that heady gathering, I wandered and wondered down E. 6th and Red River, hoping to chance upon something remarkable. As is often the case at SXSW, this sort of sojourn often results in wave after wave of mediocre rock, each venue's jet of sound bleeding into that of the one next to it and across from it. Talk about an audiophile's nightmare...

However, I did catch Carbon/Silicon, Mick Jones (the Clash) and Tony James' (Generation X) new project as they were finishing a set in a tent across from Stubb's on Red River. Their old-codger punk-rock righteousness and instantly memorable choons were a pleasant surprise. These blokes should be sitting in rocking chairs in the Joey Ramone Memorial Retirement Home, not shining in the 92º heat in Austin. Good for them.

A text from LA's DJ Short Shorts hipped me to a cool party for Vacancy Records at another tent on 5th and Neches. Silver Rockets pumped out some tuneful psych rock (including a mellow cover of Spacemen 3's "Come Down Easy") that didn't soar too far out, but it satisfied in the way you'd expect from a band consisting of ex-members of Mercury Rev, Dandy Warhols and Warlocks.

Next up were the Homosexuals, a cult British post-punk band that drew a surprisingly sizable crowd at Spiro's back patio. The vocalist—obviously was the only original member—is a fop with the gift of gab, and his between-song banter was worth the price of admission alone. "I'm 57 and still looking for a record deal." "If anyone's not happy with the show, I'll give you your money back. But no liars." "At the end of the next song, if you like it, clap with one hand." The music's flinty, catchy, wry, spry post-punk, somewhere between Wire and Gang of Four, but more accessible than either. Why the Homosexuals didn't have a string of chart dwellers back in the day is a mystery—unless their name was too much of a hindrance during their late-'70s/early-'80s prime.

In Spiro's proper, Kelley Stoltz's band climaxed their set with another Neu! homage. Neu! homages are the new black. I'm not complaining...

Over at Flamingo Cantina, Sunset Beach's RTX ground out some heavy-rock orthodoxy, with front woman Jennifer Herrema projecting a stage demeanor that made Amy Winehouse seem together. RTX radiated a powerful anti-charisma.

Thoroughly bummed from that, I moved optimistically to Prague to see Fuck Buttons, one of the most highly anticipated sets (by me) of this SXSW. The UK duo did not disappoint. I learned from local middle-school teacher Andrew that Prague is normally one of those douche-magnet bars. Some glitzy normals were in the house, apparently unaware of the aural weirdness about to ensue. It was hilarious to see their horrified expressions when Fuck Buttons' cleansing noise drones, dub cauldrons and caustic waves of slate-gray distortion scandalized and vandalized the air (and ears). Fuck Buttons are like Wolf Eyes, but with more rhythmic oomph, or like Suicide without Alan Vega's sleazy-Elvis fixation.

The rest of Prague's lineup consisted of Kranky Records artists, a veritable smorgasbord of goodness for your correspondent. Valet (guitarist/vocalist Honey Owens, electronics/guitarist Brian Foote, guitarist Adam Forkner and drummer Stephanie Macksey) unleashed enveloping, glowering drones and eerie blues ooze that toggled between stasis and ecstasis.

White Rainbow (Forkner's project with the Valet personnel chipping in) created the healing sound of the universe. This is what Terry Riley would be doing if he were 40 years younger. White Rainbow's tranquil blisstones and mesmerizing repetition of intricately looped drums and gently FX'd guitars are so atypical of SXSW's default mode, which made it exquisitely refreshing, even if one felt sullied by the residual douche-iness of the venue.

Headliners Atlas Sound—fronted by the weirdest-looking pop icon maybe ever, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter—began with fluid, spangly Sunny Ade-like guitars (from Cox and Forkner, with Owens on bass and Foote on keys), complemented by heartbeat tom-tom hits. It was a radiant efflorescence, different from the rest of the performance, which delved more into the dominant mode of Atlas Sound's album, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Not Feel: a thick swirl of shoegazer rock infused with Cox's pre-pubescent voxing. Atlas Sound ranged from one of the dreamiest pop songs ever, "Recent Bedroom," a kind of slo-mo carousel lullaby, to an apocalyptic cut that finished with triumphal swells and incendiary crescendos.

Most bands would've ended the set with that, but Atlas Sound unexpectedly broke into yet another krautrock tribute, this time to Can. Cox got on the drums and beat out a massive Jaki Liebezeit homage, first to "Halleluwah," then to "Mother Sky." Forkner picked up his large amp and let crowd members mess with the controls. The band followed Cox's lead and they mercurially revved on Germanically for a good 10 minutes after the house lights came on.

I thought there'd be a larger crowd for Atlas Sound due to all the Pitchfork love, but this turnout wasn't the expected clusterfuck. Just as well. And I think some glitzy normals actually were converted to Atlas Sound's gauzy, un-gaudy, godly beauty.

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