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Saturday, March 20, 2010

SXSW10 Day 3: GWAR and effort [Paul Thompson]

Posted by on Sat, Mar 20, 2010 at 1:33 PM

click to enlarge Gwar, giving it to a microphone (Photo: Paul Thompson)
  • Gwar, giving it to a microphone (Photo: Paul Thompson)

I was standing there checking my phone, half-watching Bethany Cosetino of Best Coast plow through another Ronettes song of her own making, when a friend told me to fuck that noise and hit the back patio: GWAR was here. Not to pick on Bethany, who has a few good songs and really loves cats and was very sweet when I met her the other day, but watching GWAR, clad in full battle armor, blow through a crowd of half-aware, half-bewildered hipster types to talk their shit and prominently display their pockmarked, fake-bloodstained buttcheeks, well… I could see Best Coast some other time.

In a few ever-more-popular pockets of indie rock, there's been this real aversion to effort, or at least, an aversion to the appearance of effort. Lo-fi, once a necessary byproduct of method, is basically an GarageBand plugin now, often draped over largely unremarkable songs with the hopes that nobody'll notice. The neo-gal-group stuff—Best Coast, Vivian Girls, and the Dum Dum Girls chief among 'em-- have largely done little to update the Phil Spector sound except maybe listen to a couple X records. Chillwave? Check the name, bro. Some of this music can be quite fetching, but it can also be quite trying; have you listened to the Wavves album in the last six months? Thought not. There's a casual blankness to a lot of these groups that comes across loud and clear live, without all the production haze to help distract. They write songs about being bored and play them in a boring way, with bored looks on their faces. It can be a little boring.

There's a big difference between a lack of effort and effortlessness: the latter can't be taught, and the former could probably use some lessons. I caught Pearl Harbor, an even slacker take on the gal-group stuff featuring one former member of the much missed Mika Miko, and they sure seemed like they couldn't wait to get the hell off the stage; the holes in their tunes are a mile wide, and they looked almost embarrassed to play them out, especially moments before the hyperkinetic, supertight Abe Vigoda erased them from our collective memory. Real Estate, who sound like an okay Sebadoh song playing three rooms over, make music so driftless, it's practically ambient noise; it can be soothing, but pay any kind of attention to it, and it's stultifying. I have to give it up for Washed Out and Dam-Funk, two studio projects with a real mastery of their laid-back sound who seem a little unsure how to do what they do in person; Ernest Greene of Washed Out bopped around a bit while slapping his laptop before bringing out a backing band to do the slapping for him, which was fine, and Dam-Funk basically just played cuts off his album and yelled at us, which was sort of incredible. But after spending much of the afternoon watching half-baked people play half-baked songs, seeing GWAR reminded me how desperately I wanted to see somebody, like, put on a show. Naturally, I had my night planned around a bunch of youngish, mostly lo-fi bands. Durr.

Home Blitz, a decidedly ADD-riddled Jersey punk-slack act, gave it a go, but it didn't quite deliver; their songs are a little too quick to hop from one bit to the next to ever really hit hard, and getting away from the Modern Lovers-inflected stuff on their debut was and is a bad move, but the ideas are there. So Cow, a wisecracking, early Jam-influenced coterie of Irishmen, were tons of fun, but their wordy tunes fare better on wax when you can better pick up on every one of Brian Kelly's little asides. Tyvek, Detroit vets, told jokes to themselves between their kinda nerdy, kinda confrontational, totally noisy tunes; it's what they do, and they're pretty great at it, but hearing them bark at each other didn't quite satisfy. Louisiana fun bunch Givers did indeed throw quite a party on the back patio of Beauty Bar, but it was one I'd been to many times before; when they don't sound almost exactly like the Dirty Projectors, they sound almost exactly like Architecture in Helsinki.

It was Sonny and the Sunsets, a San Fran quartet, who finally gave me what I was looking for; funny, since they didn't seem to be putting up much of a fight themselves. Frontman Sonny Smith looks a little older than most folks playing around these parts, and his breezy skifflepop tunes, cut with the occasional bit of early garage rock, seem the product of a lot of smoothing out; even when he's crooning about the two-headed, bedicked leader of the planet of women, he's not wasting any breath, and the songs have such a quiet confidence even the lyrics about ladypenises seem a good fit. He and the Sunsets, being a bit of a throwback act, favor vintage equipment, much of which kept veering out of tune throughout the set. But even that couldn't hold them down; he cracked wise about "the pros" having a second guitar on hand while fiddling with the beat-up old thing he was playing on, and then ambled on into the next song. It's a lack of confidence, I think, that leads a lot of these bands to gussy up their sound in burbly haze; in most cases, a perfectly understandable, but a little empty. But when you're good enough-- when you've got the songs and know how to deliver them, no matter the genre--  you can feel free to let your guitar go out of tune, or let your buttcheeks out a little bit.

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