Shearwater is no stranger to high concept rock music. Through its first three albums, frontman Jonathan Meiburg built an ambitious trilogy around his interests in nature and science, and ornithology, masterfully marrying indie rock with prog rock grandiosity. Then, with 2012’s Animal Joy, the band totally shifted, downsizing in scope, yet crafting lean and distorted rockers.
So it’s not all that surprising that Meiburg’s next move was another conceptual album: On each of Fellow Travelers‘ ten songs, Meiburg and company pays tribute to an artist with whom the band has toured.
“But disassociation, I guess, is just a modern disease.” So sings Erika M. Anderson in the closing moments of “3Jane,” a pretty, yet disquieting ballad that freely references William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the influential cyberpunk sci-fi novel known for coining the term “cyberspace.” When it was published in 1984, the story of a past-his-prime hacker in a cold virtual reality was speculative futurism in the mold of Blade Runner or TRON. But its themes may resonate even more today.
There’s a moment at the very end of “Baby,” the title track from White Hinterland’s new album, when everything in the mix drops out, revealing just the voice of singer Casey Dienel. In those final 20 seconds, as she repeatedly howls “Is this my weakness?” — without all the ghostly reverb, or the dense layers of vocals, the serrated beats, and synthesizer sequences, Dienel exposes an raw vulnerability. It’s one of those jarring, sit up and take notice moments that underscores Dienel’s musical transformation — from skillful and sweet songwriter to a powerful, emotional singer, and a producer with confidence in her craft.
Try all you like, but it’s practically impossible to resist pumping your fists in the air or pounding on the steering wheel to “I’m Not Part Of Me.” While buried as the closer on Cloud Nothings’ new album, Here And Nowhere Else, this is the kind of explosive, hair-raising song that you’ll hit repeat as soon as it ends, just so you can shout along to the line “I’m not telling you all I’m going through” with satisfying defiance. And then there’s that chorus — “But I’m not, I’m not you / You’re a part of me, you’re a part of me” — which is so emblematic of what makes Dylan Baldi, the Cleveland, Ohio band’s primary force, such a potent frontman: He’s exceptional at piling three song’s worth of melodic pop hooks into one raucous punk banger.
I don’t go to a concert a night or anything crazy, but I do see a fair amount of live music. Last night for instance, I went to two shows at two different venues, and caught all or parts of five bands’ sets. First up was an early show at Mercury Lounge for young U.K. synth pop band Woman’s Hour, and its opener Future Of What. Then, made the short but rainy walk down to Bowery Ballroom for opener Sore Eros, songwriter (and Sharon Van Etten’s longtime guitarist) Doug Keith, and Philly rockers The War On Drugs.
Every year at South By Southwest there’s a whole slew of high profile stars who drop in with big time shows, taking advantage Austin’s complete media saturation and keeping them firmly in the spotlight. When you hear complaints about SXSW getting too commercial and taking eyes away from smaller acts slogging through many shows a day and fighting to get heard, this is what they mean. In hip-hop, that seems especially true when in recent years Kanye, Jay Z, Snoop, and many more show up with much hype. Still, it’s always possible to find new acts, especially when you cannot get into those packed late night shows. And every year there’s a few names that rise above the fray: Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T. and Chance the Rapper have all had recent breakthrough sets at SXSW on their way to bigger things.
Last year, one of those names, for me, was Le1f, who I caught at NPR Music’s showcase at Stubb’s.