After South by Southwest (and a subsequent band blowout across the Mexican border), hundreds of great rock bands are headed north, using the interstates that cut through North Carolina as conduits.
Their routing—combined with the bands headed south for this weekend's Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tenn., and ambitious curatorial work by Duke Performances—results in a full concert docket this week. We asked our critics to square off with the best of them and explain why these bands—or why these bands don't—matter.
You might imagine Vancouver's Pack A.D. as a distant cousin of Chapel Hill's The Moaners. While the Canadian garage rock pair may not sound exactly like our local bluesy duo, they're of the same family, employing riffs like baseball bats—blunt, brutal objects meant to batter and bruise.
Their music has the consistency of motor oil, welling into grimy goo. Distorted reverb oozes from Becky Black's six-string like a deep veneer that's sure to stain. Maya Miller's bass drum throbs like a migraine, punctuated by neck-snapping snare thwacks. The ass-heavy guitar tone possesses a bluesy strut, but it doesn't groove so much as swing its elbows and flail its arms in violent spasms.
Don't say they didn't warn you, since Black's vocal exhortations have a cautionary air: "I'm a killjoy, I'm a speck, you and me are a perfect set of tools," she wails on "B.C. Is on Fire." The matter-of-fact delivery expresses less concern than resignation. Engines of destruction, like this band, have little choice but to go about their business. With Gross Ghost. $5/ 9 p.m. —Chris Parker
The band Los Lobos—David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, Louie Pérez and eventually, Steve Berlin—self-released their first record, Just Another Band from East L.A., in the late '70s. Any quintet that's been making music for more than 30 years now should have a firmly established identity, right?
OK, I'll bite: What kind of band is Los Lobos?
Obviously, as characterized by early tracks like "Sabor a Mi" and "Guantanamera," Los Lobos exist to pay homage to the music the members heard growing up, the boleros and rancheras and other Mexican folkloric styles. And they celebrate the Mexican-American artists who came before them, covering Ritchie Valens' (née Valenzuela) "Come On, Let's Go" and later "La Bamba," the folk song Valens rocked up and made a smash.
But there's the group's bursting-with-spirit (and spirits) take on the Little Bob and the Lollipops nugget "I Got Loaded" from the Bull Durham soundtrack, a number that played during the big late-night muddy field scene. So Los Lobos are a resurrection band, bringing back songs from the dead, regardless of the tune's ethnicity.
No, Los Lobos are a roots rock band, or, after the mid-'90s, an alt-country band. Many folks were introduced to Los Lobos via "Will the Wolf Survive?," a song whose rustic jangle should be under glass as an Americana blueprint and with a hook that still preys on you 25 years down the road. Waylon Jennings covered it, after all. On The Neighborhood, Los Lobos offered the gospel-like lullaby "Little John of God" and the swampy "Down on the Riverbed," a song that Little Feat should have snapped up instantly. Forebear Levon Helm and contemporary John Hiatt guested, and the influence of both is audible—just as, paying it forward, you can hear the influence of Los Lobos in bands like The Gourds.
But if the only Los Lobos record you own is Kiko, you'd call them an avant-garde band who trafficked in experimental soundscapes—more atmospherica than Americana. They offered more of the same four years later with Colossal Head, only with a raucous spirit replacing its predecessor's more subdued mood.
Los Lobos are certainly a soul band, though. Have you heard their version of "What's Going On"? Their take on Bobby Womack's "More Than I Can Stand," which emerged on the all-covers EP Ride This, is even better.
Then again, based on last year's Does Disney, Los Lobos could be the new house band in Mouseville. That's not meant to disparage, either—the record is a charmer, with bonus points for embracing not one but two Roger Miller-penned songs from Robin Hood.
Really, it's easier to go the opposite direction and say what Los Lobos aren't. The title of that first record aside (a title the guys recycled for a two-disc retrospective in 1993), Los Lobos are most definitely not just another band from East LA. That'd be like saying that Leo Kottke is just another guitar player. But that's another story. $5–$42/ 8 p.m. —Rick Cornell
The story of Wye Oak, Baltimore-based duo Jenny Wasner and Andy Stack, sounds like an Empire Records remake for YouTube. With only a few quick-and-dirty recordings and a little effort spent courting blog exposure, the duo was not only welcomed into its vibrant local scene but also into the fold of major indie rock with a coveted roster spot on Merge Records.
That's not to call the music—twists and tessellations of guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, loops and vocals played by just two people—simple or insufficient. "When we started playing with that setup, I really started to feel like it was possible to not let the fact there are just two of us affect what we wanted to do musically," Wasner says. Now, two full-lengths deep and on the verge of a new EP, My Neighbor/ My Creator, they've sorted their setup, even if they haven't defined their sound.
"I don't feel like we necessarily have a style that we have to stick to," she says. "If people give a shit enough about us to want to try and describe our music, we're not going to take offense to what they say. I have a hard enough time describing it myself."
Shearwater, on the other hand, brings no shortage of vivid descriptors, all keying on the fragile, elegant beauty of singer/ songwriter Jonathan Meiburg's voice. The band began as a one-off collaboration between Meiburg and Okkervil River's Will Sheff. It's spun from the timid despair of the 2001 debut, The Dissolving Room, into a powerful, symphonic force.
"We wanted to make a really ornate album with a wide range of textures and colors, musically and emotionally, that worked on the scale of some of the big, dark, grand art-rock albums from the early '80s that we loved, like Pink Floyd's The Final Cut or Peter Gabriel's third record," says Meiburg of the band's latest, The Golden Archipelago. The result is a precisely tracked slow-burner.
As for how that elaborate construction translates live, Meiburg reasons, "To me it's not fidelity to the recording that matters so much as fidelity to the emotional content of the songs—and on that count, I think we're at the top of our game right now." $10–$12/ 8 p.m. —Ashley Melzer
Growing up, Jason Chung wanted to be a hip-hop producer, like Dr. Dre or Timbaland. But, as he told Flavorwire.com, things changed. "As I got older, around 2003–04, I was getting more into indie rock and going to shows at The Smell in downtown LA, seeing bands like No Age, Health, Abe Vigoda and Mika Miko. Seeing DIY acts really inspired me to do my own thing."
In Chung's case, it was Nosaj Thing (sound it out for a particularly painful pun). On his 2009 full-length debut, Drift, Chung concocted haunting electronic instrumentals that, like the work of LA compatriot Flying Lotus, transcend conventional definitions of hip-hop. They defy easy categorization altogether, much like the work of tonight's two bill-toppers.
Swedish duo jj treats genres like recipe ingredients. They mix R&B, dub, house, hip-hop and most everything else to create pristine, crystalline and immersive musical structures. Befitting their mad-scientist approach to their work, jj also has a bit of a rambunctious streak—their most notable track to date, "Ecstasy," finds the female half of the group blithely and blissfully espousing the virtues of the drug in question over an etherized interpolation of Lil Wayne's "Lollipop."
This bill's headliner, The xx, also dabble in their own form of ecstasy, though it's not the sort that their band name not-so-obliquely references. For this British trio, ecstasy comes in intimacy and silence. The way that the voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim navigate their songs—quietly but confidently—belies the fact that they're just now entering their 20s, nevermind the fact that they have only a self-titled debut under their belt. Each song on said album luxuriates in its space, the group's minimalistic instrumentation—a few guitar notes here, some bass notes there, a little drum machine figure in the background—putting everything in its right place. SOLD OUT/ 9 p.m. —David Raposa
Sarah Borges knows how to write 'em. Borges hit the alt-roots scene with 2005's Silver City and bypassed her "promising" stage, going directly into the ranks of "can't wait to hear what she comes up with next." That debut's "Ring in the Shape of a Heart" offers two images worthy of a classic honky-tonk weeper: the titular beer-bottle vestige and a woman drinking beside the photo of her lover for company. The déjà-vu bounce of "The Day We Met," which leads off 2007's Diamonds in the Dark, makes it sound more like a cover than, well, all the covers on that album.
Speaking of covers, Sarah Borges knows how to pick 'em. She covered Teenage Fanclub on Silver City and roughed up a Thomas Dorsey hymn. On Diamonds in the Dark, she visited the Compulsive Gamblers and, perhaps more predictably, Dolly Parton and X, while satisfying her Tom Waits requirement with an album-capping "Blind Love." The Stars Are Out was something of a free-for-all, with stops at Clive Gregson, Lemonheads, NRBQ and The Magnetic Fields. And when she dipped into the Smokey Robinson songbook, she went post-Miracles for "Being With You."
I still can't wait to hear what she comes up with next. $10/ 8 p.m. —Rick Cornell
Editor's Note: From Berkeley Cafe, March 24: "I'm sorry to say that Thursday's show with Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles has been postponed due to illness in the band's family. We will reschedule as soon as possible. Please keep Sarah's guitar player/ fiance Lyle's mother in your prayers."
Psychedelic Horseshit's music isn't an end in and of itself. It's more of an extreme adverse reaction to overproduced music. With super slick acts like St. Vincent, Phoenix and She & Him dominating the indie rock world, there had better be malcontents. Psychedelic Horseshit, and lots of acts like them, are for modern rock audiences what the Germs were in the '70s. Even if you despise them, they've still made their point.
We're supposed to think this is the sound of three people who don't know how to play their instruments, but it's definitely not that. These guys know exactly what they're doing—especially drummer Rich Johnston, whose playing is quite good.
Psychedelic Horseshit is not only purposefully bad, but they also make their recordings sound like, well, horseshit. It comes across either as a lightly structured noise project or a schizophrenic jam band coming apart at the seams. Think of Brian Jonestown Massacre never practicing, with all the self-awareness intact. Throw in a little forced anachronism, and you have a squealing, yowling strike against the current pantheon of indie darlings.An antithesis to the spit-and-shine of the Zooey Deschanel set—that's where this band's potential lies. Almost, guys. Almost.
With Dirty Little Heaters and Shit Horse, natch. $6/ 9:30 p.m. —Corbie Hill
Brooklyn's Vivian Girls rode a tidal wave of blog-born buzz to become last year's Next Big Thing and this year's Yesterday's News, with the reality being that their lo-fi, garage girl-group racket deserves a spot somewhere between those poles. On the other hand, England's WetDog hails from the other side of the Atlantic, has its roots firmly planted in that land's frenetic punk and post-punk past, and has seen its level of fame rise in a slow-and-steady fashion.
Both groups are touring behind their second full-length albums, and while they're peddling well-worn sounds, that doesn't mean they're not worth a listen. WetDog's Frauhaus finds the trio offering a surprisingly accurate approximation of not just the sounds made by their European spiritual foremothers—The Raincoats, LiLiPUT, the Slits—but the inventiveness and charming pique that truly epitomized those groups' collective greatness. And after setting their little corner of the world aflame with their eponymous debut, Everything Goes Wrong finds the Vivian Girls giving the bandwagon bunch the finger. They hone their harmonious reverb into shapes at once more palatable and raucous than anything they've done to date.
"If you're passionate about something, you will find the other people who are passionate about the same thing," the Vivian Girls' Cassie Ramone told the magazine Huck. "[A]ll these other bands, all across America and all over the world, are passionate about a certain kind of music, it's in the stars that we're going to find each other." Also, new Sub Pop signee Happy Birthday. $5/ 9 p.m. —David Raposa
The last time ex-Drive-by Trucker Jason Isbell took the stage at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre, he told a rapt audience he was having the "most fun" he'd had all tour. It's little surprise, then, that Isbell returns to the Lincoln on Friday for his final stateside show before touring Australia with Justin Townes Earle. A singer and guitarist who often displays a soulfulness beyond his 30-something years, Isbell cut his teeth playing with session musicians in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the birthplace of such soul-pop classics as "Wild Horses," "I Never Loved a Man" and "Mustang Sally." Later, as a member of southern rock standard-bearers the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell wrote a series of genuinely great songs himself, among them "Outfit" and "Decoration Day."
As the leader of his own band, the 400 Unit, Isbell doesn't mind standing in the shadow of his brief tenure with the Truckers. Shows typically feature Drive-By Truckers songs Isbell wrote, mixed with tracks from the two albums he's cut since leaving the group. The result is a back catalogue that's impressive if not flawless: At this point, Isbell has about 10 excellent songs. His last show at the Lincoln clocked in at about 150 minutes, or about 20 tunes.
Nevertheless, Isbell's dependable alchemy of shuffling rhythm, sneaky melodies and unabashedly soulful singing is a pleasant reminder of his Alabama roots—and a promise of good things to come. With Caleb Caudle and the Bayonets. $13–$15/ 9 p.m. —Matt Saldaña
After revivalism sucked the last few drops of sustenance from new wave, everyone knew the hungry maw would eventually alight upon late '80s alt-rock. So not only have we resurrected shoegazing (classic, stoner and doom-laden varieties), dream pop and fuzzed-out twee, but, alas, here comes the wiry, pulsing undercurrent of jagged, hooky post-punk, at least partially synonymous with Chapel Hill.
The Soft Pack began life as Muslims before lightening the rhetorical load. Singer/ guitarist Matt Lamkin sings with crisp '60s-pop diction and a slightly Dolls-ish sneer, while brawny bass lines carry the melody and slashes of guitar slalom across the breaks. More than mere stylists, the quartet writes some exceptionally catchy tunes. From the buoyant, walk-on-water melody of "Bright Side" and slow-dancing surf-swing of "Mexico," they've demonstrated the ability to wield hooks like a martial artist.
The Nodzzz aren't quite as dynamic, and Anthony Atlas's nasal vocals equally recall puberty and Fred Schneider. But their 90-seconds-or-less paeans suggest the piston-pumping intensity of Devo getting lessons from the Buzzcocks. The guitar stabs like old Wire, searing spasms over a bam-bam-bam bass drum. The offbeat, declamatory delivery and sardonically guileless lyrics recall Modern Lovers-era Jonathan Richman as they go by a "Highway Memorial Shrine" and catch the city's buzz on the Velvets-ish "In the City (Contact High)."
Even openers Beaters are pretty good. There's a dance-funk undercurrent to their pulsing tracks, their shrill lo-fi squeals sounding a little like Gang of Four frappéd in a Cuisinart. $10/ 8:45 p.m. —Chris Parker
Wilco have played the Triangle 11 times since 1995, five since their breakthrough 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Perhaps you saw one of these shows, maybe in Cary in 2008, with an encore set featuring the Total Pros horns. Maybe you saw the Jeff Tweedy solo gig at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh in 2006. If you haven't, and the idea of seeing Wilco has ever appealed to you, then you should get on CraigsList and look for an extra to their already sold-out gig at the Durham Performing Arts Center. It's worth it.
But, again, maybe you've already seen them do their Americana/ pop/ noise/ sing-along thing once or five times. Maybe you've road-tripped to see them in Asheville. Maybe you've were worried that their lineup, anchored by the sometimes mercurial songwriter Tweedy, would combust and that you'd miss your chance to hear Wilco with the fantastic narrative drumming of Glenn Kotche or the unhinged Jerry/ Duane leads of avant-guitarist Nels Cline. But it didn't, and you haven't.
Instead, Wilco have grown into adulthood. Or, at least, they've found a semi-permanent lineup and a comfort level that permeates their songwriting and presentation. If you have favorite Wilco songs, you're likely to hear them in Durham. You're also likely to get them with a dose of cuteness, like the expectant pause Tweedy has added to his signature passive-aggressive anthem "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," beckoning for participation. They mug onstage. When they opened last year's Wilco (The Album) with "Wilco (The Song)" and posed on the back cover—in party hats, with a llama—there was no way to write about them without somehow embracing Wilco (The Cuteness). They are content, it seems, to just be Wilco. "What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore," Tweedy sang in 1999. Occasionally, I guess, it's exactly who you'd like to remain.
In the grand cultural landscape, their fundamentally hooky guitar rock is the equivalent of a cool, dark hollow where new, classic-sounding LPs still mark the days. Wilco are a big, goofy jamband without the jams (the occasional ripping "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" notwithstanding). They are also a big, cool indie rock band without the cool, as well as a big, classic act from rock's yesteryear, without actually being from the past—or even that big. Lately, they've been covering Neil Young's "Broken Arrow" and learning how to groove, which both seem as decent indicators as any of Wilco's direction: deeper into Wilconess. SOLD OUT/ 8 p.m. —Jesse Jarnow
If you're hoping to start a spat among indie rock listeners right now (and, really, does that even sound fun?), I'd recommend beginning here: "Oh, man, that band sucks. They don't even write songs."
That dialectic took center stage last year when Wavves, a teenager from California blasting little bits of hooks and electric guitar in his bedroom, became a sudden star. Sure, this kid, Nathan Williams, put some interesting sounds to tape, but, a year on now, it seems clear that there wasn't much to take away from his music except a case study in hype. Wavves is just one band, though, and since, cheaply recorded, barely polished music of several stripes has crept onto big stages. Much of it forces the same issue: Between the synthesizer-and-beat burbles of chillwave dudes like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi and the distorted garage bristle of bands like Best Coast and Vivian Girls, there seems to be an abundance of sounds if not a wealth of songs—that is, when the buzz cycle spins on, will you remember anything except a cloudy impression?
Woods—three New Yorkers and one Kansan now living in Bushwick—got a little lost in that shuffle last year. After all, Woods run the label Woodsist, an imprint for friend-bands that's often linked to this groundswell of lo-fi favorites. But last year's Songs of Shame, the fourth Woods LP, delivers both songs and sounds. "Rain On," for instance, has this perfect, patient chorus, an electric guitar howling quietly beneath Jeremy Earl's high-pitched soul-searching/ shame-shoveling. But the understated weirdness—timid tones and shaky rhythms that suggest the band's half-asleep, or rehearsing Sparklehorse for a school project—draw you in close, making you peer again and again beneath the hook, demanding you hear everything that might be happening. It's addictive because it's catchy and elliptical.
The same goes for "Military Madness," a reverent cover of the peace protest from Graham Nash's great Songs for Beginners. The band's practically springy here, at least for Woods, but, every few measures, the electric guitar offers a musical frown, notes from a wah-wah pedal clouding everything below the words. It draws you beneath the familiar, perfect melody. That's where you hear the weird little intricacies—the way that cymbal splashes, the staggered walk of the bass, the distorted crackle of the vocals. It's worth a sing-along—and a listen.
Too bad tourmates and labelmates Real Estate have yet to find that balance. Wanna fight about it? With Soft Company. $10/ 9 p.m. —Grayson Currin
Major Lazer finds big-time producers Switch and Diplo doing dancehall. But that distillation misses much of the silly fun involved here. Take the video for "Pon De Floor," where the raspy raga vocals bounce through careening images of dancers, faces smeared in goofy grimaces. They're jerking around each other, humping and bumping like one of those Stepford Wives gone batty, an acid-damaged Technicolor backdrop telling us this is really weird.
Dancehall in its original form certainly fronts sex, but it became infamous over time for homophobic messages and violence. Switch and Diplo appear to be coming up with a new mish-mash of culture jamming, territory they know well from work with MIA. Among the ting-ting and bass backbone, a song might contain canned button-pushers like a horse neighing or a Nirvana riff. But artistic heritage still holds the center for these two; they record at Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica, smartly recruiting a handful of vocalists like Santogold and Nina Sky to augment their production.
While their overall mantra seems to be "anything goes," the tone hovers around wacky and wack, like the funkier tracks by Beck suddenly made more danceable. That oddball sample opens a gateway to whoever recognizes it, but once they're in, will they dig the whole game plan? See for yourself. With Rusko and Sleigh Bells. $15–$17/ 9 p.m. —Chris Toenes