SXSW, Part 1

Another South by Southwest is in the books. My 21st out of a possible 23 festivals. Let me start with three acts that were among the most prominent participants there in terms of appearances. It seemed like every time I turned around—day, night, those sunny, warm Austin spring afternoons when the free drinks flow freely and the good times roll—there would be Raul Malo, the Heartless Bastards and/or M. Ward playing yet another gig.

For me the jury is still out on Ohioan (now residing in Austin) Erika Wennerstrom, the singer/songwriter, guitar player and visibly–driven front woman of Heartless Bastards who is clearly a talent. Just about the time that I shrug and go “Ehh,” about her records, I find myself walking along, hearing her in my head sing one of rock’s great, but completely nonsensical lines, “Take it on down the line,” which is in the chorus of the title cut of her new record, The Mountain. As weird as this sounds, the vaguely Nordic tone in her voice when she intones that line kinda hooks me.

Signed to Fat Possum, the blues world’s version of a cool indie rock label and home of another cool Ohio act, the inestimable Black Keys, she and her ever–changing trio are trying to impose their will and become a success. I’m not sure of the destination yet, but this woman is on some kind of a mission. And as acts go she’s one weird blend: part folkie, part Janis Joplin, part Led Zep admirer—nothing that can be easily classified. She knows how to land a punch as a live act but to me the material is still fairly weak and in many cases, hookless. The songs swing between a raspy, near metal–like thunder and a quieter, reflective side. Her lyrics are bland as hell, devoid of proper nouns and generally uninspiring. Throwing around tired–assed terms like “midnight train,” “sweet unknown” and “city of light,” does not for memorable words make. But in a tune like, “Early in the Morning,” both on record and on stage, where she goes into full bore belter mode, she shows that she’s got the presentation and forceful delivery thing down cold and that, my friends, is half the battle. The Mountain, is her best yet, melding all her influences and ideas into a reasonably coherent whole.

I was beginning to wonder if Matt Ward was ever going to get back to his solo career what with last year’s celebrated She & Him detour with Zooey Deschanel, which to my ears had one big problem: her squeaky voice that wore out it’s welcome after a couple of songs.

Anyway, Portland, Oregon’s indie rock star is back with a new, evenhanded album, Hold Time. The guy’s a genius of sorts who makes masterfully arranged, almost endlessly referential (which I guess on the flip side could be thought of as derivative) folk music for the younger set, indie rock rambling with a brain and a killer attention to details. Take his cover of “Rave On,” the old Buddy Holly chestnut, which here gets an upbeat Wall-of Sound veneer. The Spectorisms continue in the bouncy, “To Save Me,” which also blend in Brian Wilson harmonies. Is there any music today that doesn’t channel or at least borrow from Brian Wilson? “Fisher of Men,” is a solid twangfest. The slow, wide open spaces, “Oh Lonesome Me,” with its echo chamber, rhythm samples and background keyboard shimmer is the perfect vehicle for duet partner, Lucinda Williams. She emotes so much more than Deschanel who adds her voice to “Never Had Anybody like You.”

Much grumbling in Austin centered on the argument that the guy has put all his best energies into side projects. That all his best ideas, not to mention songs, now reside on other people’s records. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of rock critics need slapped on a regular basis and this is a prime example. Bunch of damn babies. To my ears, Hold Time is another great record from one of indie rock’s most talented texturizers.

The question with Raul Malo is always one of how much schmaltz you can take. His original music is a throwback of sorts, too sunny for Sinatra, pitched too high and too hard to sing for most other vocalists, it’s pop, mixed with rock guitar edges, Latin-tinged percussion (he’s from Florida) and an almost vaudevillian penchant for bursting forth into song. Malo resides at the very top of the pile when it comes to vocal chops. The man has a monster voice, almost operatic at times, which he knows how to use to great effect on the kind of pop material he writes for records like his latest, Lucky One. Malo who fronts The Mavericks, one the most adventurous, thumb–in–the–eye of Music Row bands ever to sign with a Nashville label, has now fashioned a solo career that gags some but pleases more who dig his soaring love songs. Soaring is the word too. The guy is addicted to fast rising modulations that showcase the powers that lie in his throat and chest.

Live and on his new record, tunes like, “Hello Again,” which work in a vein much like past Mavericks triumphs like, “Here Comes the Rain” (from Music for All Occasions) or “I Want To Know,” (from 2003’s The Mavericks) make up the bulk of the new material. There’s no disputing that he has now become an absolute master at writing songs that put his voice in the best possible setting. And he’s the kind of singer who, depending on how much he’s been singing, is more often than not equal or better live than he is on record. More Austin to come.

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