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sxsw 2012

NPR's day show celebrates indies and ends with an electric set from The Magnetic Fields

Every year I make it a point to make it to NPR's day show at The Parish. I always walk away having seen phenomenal acts and this year was no different. Here's the rundown on a few artists that deserve your ears during SXSW and beyond.

La Vida Boheme

Venezuelan rock band La Vida Boheme started the crowd moving and bumping elbows with their high-energy rock. They appeared in matching white outfits, splattered in paint, and began to play like the devil himself was at their heels. The lead singer’s beautiful, seamless, controlled falsetto moments were only one of the bands many highlights. They came to Austin with an outlandish frenzy, but they put a lot of time and energy into this stage show so they could take the audience on a complex aural journey while they shouted at them. Stream or download the audio of the perfomance here.

Sugar Tongue Slim

STS took the stage and probably should have been allowed to leave with it. I was skeptical of the Philadephia rapper’s act, who appeared on The Root’s 2010 album “How I Got Over,”  because he often takes high-profile samples from popular songs, which can be a weaker artist’s attempt at instant fandom. But his verses were tight and well-structured, he was funny, and his running dialogue with the audience made each new song feel like a piece of a conversation he was having with them. Stream the show and if you like that, download his free mixtape — it's hard to stop listening to.

Poliça

Poliça is the latest project from GAYNGS lead female vocalist Channy Casselle and was rightly included in Time magazine’s list of “Buzz-Worthy Bands to Check Out" during SXSW. Her performance was very emotionally earnest and engaged and she seemed to act each song out, embodying each one with an honest momentum. The apex of the show was “The Maker,” which ended with Casselle repeating “He wouldn’t love me like that” while tracing a line of anguish across the stage. Listen to the performance and if you can make it two one of Poliça’s two performances tomorrow, GO.

Lower Dens

Perhaps it was the natural discord between the kinetic energy of the first three acts and the largely stationary and subdued stage shows that followed, but I felt as if the crowd had been hyped up, energized and taken somewhere together to be disappointed by Lower Dens. The streaming version of the show allows you to actually hear Jana Hunter’s vocals and better recreates the performance I was expecting to hear.

The Magnetic Fields 

The Magnetic Fields show began with a strike of the stage, removing the large concert speakers and drum set and bringing in the band’s comparatively slight set up. Stephin Merritt, the lead singer of The Magnetic Fields and a former editor of Spin Magazine, is known for his implementation of unusual acoustic instruments — his music stand included an accordion and a wind piano and at one point he produced a brand new kazoo and began playing it.

In between songs Merritt vacillated between describing the actions on stage for the radio listeners and wryly making fun of the audience. At one point the crowd got into a chuckle loop, laughing at everything Merritt said and he noted to the listeners at home that they were doing so because the band members were all wearing very funny costumes. At another point he gestured to the disco ball hanging from the ceiling and made a remark about how the it was slowly turning, like the earth, reflecting all of the light thrown on it. A part of me wanted to believe he was coyly pointing out how ludicrous the band looked playing under a disco ball, but the other part wanted to give him a butterscotch and some tips on anecdote followthrough.

The show was subdued, but most of the fans in the audience didn’t come to see them play, they came to remind themselves of how much their back catalog meant to them. Songs like “Grand Canyon” and “The Book of Love” and “Come Back From San Francisco” had a cathartic effect on the crowd. From NPR’s All Songs Considered blog

People were weeping in the audience as The Magnetic Fields played droll, melancholy love songs, including a certain NPR Music editor: "We actually had to take out an extra rider on our insurance to cover any slippage that occurred on the puddles of my tears," Stephen [Thompson] said. 

Ideally, that would have been the entire show, but the band also played songs from their new album, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea.” The new material is precious and affected, without the sardonic edge that sharpened 69 Love Songs. The characters in their music are still dropping like flies, still being driven to desperation by love, but they’ve traded ornamentation for pathos. The band has made a reputation for building their albums on simple concepts and then taking them to extremes, but it seems we’ve reached a point where the concept is stifling the music.

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