Thursday, March 14, 2013

SXSW Wednesday: Jim James is amazing, Foxygen is terrible, and some other things

Jim James is amazing and Foxygen is terrible in Austin.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 14, 2013 at 12:47 PM

Where do you even start?
  • Where do you even start?
Do you use the Internet? Then you are probably aware that South by Southwest is happening this week in Austin, a city where Dumpsters are repurposed as advertising canvases. There is also a food truck sponsored by an NBC show called Hannibal. Laurence Fishburne is in it. If you are interested in tweeting about Hannibal, use the hashtag #hannibaleats, per the advertisement on the food truck. I am making fun of it, but the bahn mi tacos were really good! Recommended! On to the fest!

I caught Jim James of My Morning Jacket twice on Wednesday - once early in the day for an artist interivew with VH1's Bill Flanagan, then later at the Hype Hotel, which is basically the ground floor of a parking garage that's been converted into a music venue. At the interview, which was not nearly as crowded as I would have expected, James was exactly as cool and laid-back as you'd expect, and his responses were a refreshing alternative to the hyper-accelerated tech-dork social-media marketing-speak that permeates SXSW. Here are a few choice quotes I scribbled down:

"I know for a fact that there are artists in every state in this country making brilliant music that isn't being heard because of the flood of music that exists on the Internet."

"I think in 50 or 100 years we will look back on the way we use the Internet now as a huge mistake. It's a horrible drug."

"[George Harrison's] All Things Must Pass is like a divine communication with God."

"Shannon Hoon is one of the most underrated singers of all time. Blind Melon made a bunch of great music, but they don't get any respect because they weren't 'cool'. People just think of them as that band who made the video with the girl in the bee suit. But they really spoke to me and my friends when we were younger."

"Everybody wants to be so fuckin' cool. Everybody wants to be cool and talk about how great the Velvet Underground is. There is no risk at all in saying you like the Velvet Underground."

"A lot of bloggers and critics seem to think there's no room for humor in music. We sometimes include songs on our albums that are funny and stupid and we just think are fun to play, and they always hate them."

"With artists like Gil [Scott-Heron], Stevie [Wonder], Curtis [Mayfield], there's a sense of momentum and empowerment that I really respond to. They seem like guys who are confused but hopeful, and that's how I feel a lot of the time."

"I think Dean [Wareham] and I are kinda kindred spirits. When The Tennessee Fire came out, people told me it sounded like [Wareham's band] Galaxie 500. I'd never heard it before, and I went and listened to it and thought it was a good comparison."

"I sometimes think of songwriting like Arrid Extra Dry deodorant: 50 percent perspiration, 50 percent inspiration."

"I don't really give a shit about the digital vs. analog debate. I used to be a super analog guy, and felt like how could you not record on it, because it's purer and older and everything. But digital technology has come a long way. And a shitty song on analog is still a shitty song. A kid who makes a beautiful song on Garage Band is just as valid to me as anything on analog."

"I'm a real nerd about recording technology. There's a power in understanding the engineering side of things. Early on I worked with shitty engineers who would tell me not to do things or who didn't understand what I wanted to do. So it was important to figure out how to make the sounds I wanted. You know, you get some shitty engineer who's like, 'No, it's dumb to put a bunch of reverb on your voice.' And you're like, 'No, I like it and I think it sounds beautiful. Fuck you, I'm gonna do what I want, it's my world.'"

"That was so casually life-affirming and refreshing," my friend said after, which was what I and probably most of the room was thinking.

About nine hours later, James bounced onto the stage at the Hype Hotel for his headlining gig. As an eerie synth line rose in the darkness, James stood with his back to the audience for about a minute, like a monk. Then came the opening piano notes of "State of the Art (AEIOU)," the first track on his recently released debut solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God. It's a beautiful song: hopeful, soulful, confused, just like that of the soul icons he mentioned in his interview. Soul sounds have been creeping their way into the past few My Morning Jacket albums, but the influence is most pronounced on Regions. There are soul revival acts going that replicate the sounds of the past - Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. James' soul music borrows from the past, but he puts his weird, modern artistic stamp on it. The result is something totally brave and fresh and new. I could write all day about Jim James - the guy is a fucking powerhouse, one of America's great musical treasures. As far as the performance: His five-piece band is all pros, tight as hell, and when the drums finally kicked in and he sang I use the state of the art, it was glorious. They ran through a good chunk of the songs on Regions, and if 2 a.m. is closing time in Austin, then they definitely broke the curfew.

The contrast between James' set and that of Foxygen, the band that preceded him, could not have been starker. Foxygen got some buzz earlier this year on blogs and Pitchfork, and their debut album is not terrible - it's kind of a 1960s throwback, and it smacks a bit of the Kinks, the Stones and the Velvet Underground. But they were so woefully bad that I almost felt sorry for them. They are young, and their singer wore a vintage tuxedo, and there was a cute girl in the band shaking a tambourine and wearing a big red hat like the Puritans used to wear. They are like a garage band, in that they sounded like high school kids practicing for a battle of the bands in their parents' garage. I am not exaggerating when I say there are literally 25 bands in Kansas City better than Foxygen. There are bands in Kansas City that I don't even like that are better than Foxygen. At times, it seemed like they actually did not know how to play their instruments, like they were just models or actors who'd been hired to look like musicians. I don't want to be too hard on them - maybe they were tired or drunk or just having a bad day - but my impression is that they are a typical example of how the music industry hypes fashionable young bands that are just not that talented. All style, zero substance. Next, please.

The first band I caught at the Hype Hotel was Phosphorescent, which played before Foxygen. Singer Matthew Houck was wearing a cap and sunglasses. "I want to say two things," Houck said after a few songs. "One, thank you for being here. I know there's a lot of other places you could be. Two, these are prescription sunglasses. I feel like an asshole wearing them inside, but I have a medical condition." He's very charming, and his band's music - soaring, electric alt-country - is equally so. The set was too short, only 30 minutes, but stuffed full of songs from Phosphorescent's upcoming record, Muchacho. "Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)" was the lone cut from Here's to Taking It Easy, the band's borderline-classic 2010 record.

  • Joel Hornbostel
I started Wednesday evening with Nick Cave at Stubb's. "Hopefully it will be dark by the end of the show," he said by way of hello. I've never been a huge Cave guy, but the brooding theatricality of his music really comes together live. I was probably 300 feet away from the stage but still totally mesmerized by many of the songs, particularly the opener, on which he growled the names Robert Johnson, Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana. Cave writhed around like a snake, pounded on the piano, manhandled the microphone. He is one sexy motherfucker of a performer. "Stagger Lee" and "The Mercy Seat" were among the highlights.

More tomorrow.

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