Monday, March 19th, 2012
SXSW 2012 Night One
Fiona Apple, Dry The River and Daughter at SXSW
Frank YangThe return of Fiona Apple to the public eye may have been the story of the SXSW not nicknamed, “The Boss”. Some six plus on from the release of her last album Extraordinary Machine, it’s not been an absence of, oh, Kevin Shields proportions but the tales of shelved releases and label battles have certainly given her a mythology of similar proportions. I say this from the perspective of someone who’s never counted himself a fan of her work but who’s certainly heard the stories; despite constantly being told – or perhaps because – that I needed to get better acquainted with her work, I’d always resisted. No real reason besides that I didn’t dig debut single “Criminal” back in the day and sometimes I like being contrary. But given the opportunity to witness her festival-opening comeback show, timed to begin building anticipation for her upcoming fourth album The Idler Wheel… due out in June, the temptation to bear witness was too great even though the three-block lineup to get in was a pretty good deterrent.
Rather than position herself as a headliner for the NPR-sponsored lineup, Apple opened the evening and following her three-piece band onto the Stubb’s stage, I remembered that I really had only a vague idea of what she even looked like, and those impressions were over a decade old. The 34-year old Apple still looked similar to what my mind’s eye saw – tiny and slight of frame – but also much older, an impression reinforced by her onstage persona. To put it mildly, Apple did not seem comfortable up there, all awkward and twitchy body language and grimaced facial expressions (though not without some smiles, to be fair). Yet even with that, she emanated a certain magnetic stage presence and curious confidence, like she knew she looked uncomfortable but didn’t care if you noticed.
Her fans certainly didn’t care. Even years after her last record and tour, she clearly still commanded great loyalty from her devotees, so vocal were they about welcoming her back and hearing her sing again. And appearances aside, she did sound quite good; splitting time behind the piano and just singing, her combination of jazz and rock, possessing both smoke and fire, is still a distinctive one and capable of strained vulnerability and bold acrobatics. Other reports mentioned that she premiered some new songs in the set but I didn’t recognize most of the songs – “Criminal” closed things out – but it acknowledge that it may be time I finally gave her records a listen.
A block south of Stubb’s, it was all about the new with a couple of English acts who’d come into the festival with a good amount of buzz behind them. First was Daughter, whom you might rightly assume to be the stage name of frontwoman Elena Tonra but who succeeded by virtue of how the three-piece operated as a band. Their shadowy folk answered the question of what Laura Marling might have sounded like if she’d pursued a less traditional, more rock-friendly path, or opted to work more collaboratively than proceed as a solo artist. They possessed an appealing darkness both musically and lyrically and had impressively intricate and understated arrangements. They’ve still only the His Young Heart EP to their name but the prospect of a full-length is a tantalizing one.
Dry The River were decidedly further along the anticipation curve, having just released their long-awaited debut album in the UK and about to do so in North America (the April 17th release date helpfully shouted out by a fan). There’s so much about what the band does that could go wrong; their anthemic folk rock walks the razor’s edge of being swallowed in bombast or melodrama but they gracefully manage to stay on the right side of the equation. They’re unafraid of being dramatic, of going for the rafter-shaking choruses and led by Peter Liddle’s tremulously powerful vocals, they pull it off – it’s heart-rending rather than head-shaking and when you add in the band’s multi-part harmonies, stellar musicianship and charming banter and you’ve just about a sure thing in the post-Mumford world. I’m sure I’m not the first to make Mumford comparisons and also unsure if the band would count it as praise, but they’re a relevant reference point and I’m sure the band wouldn’t mind sharing in some of that meteoric success. They’re hardly soundalikes, mind you, being both rawer and more sophisticated than that suspender-wearing quartet and either of those factors could work against them but then those choruses… They’re in town on April 27 at The Garrison with Bowerbirds; do yourself a favour and see for yourself.
And that was Wednesday. Just three acts, yes, but I was discouraged from the remainder of my itinerary by jammed venues and barking dogs (the metaphorical kind) and hey – I had a busy day programme and saw two bands the night before. And it was going to be a long week; no need to wear myself out the first night.
The start of the month brought word of a new Hot Chip album called In Our Heads, out June 12. Now we’ve got the first sample via a video and a North American tour that includes a Toronto stop at The Sound Academy on July 15.
Video: Hot Chip – “Flutes”
Video: Slow Club – “The Dog”
Lianne La Havas continues to preview her debut album Is Your Love Big Enough with another new video ahead of its July 19 release.
Stream: Gaz Coombes – “Sub-Divider”