Photograph by Steven Walter

South by Southwest is kind of like the Twitter of music festivals. It’s peppy, popular, easy to mock, highly corporate and desperate to hide that fact with little stabs at techy subversiveness. The scene on the ground is as though social networking itself was suddenly given life by a trickster god, as musicians of every flavour and every level of grunginess mingle with industry suits and club kids on spring break. Iffy metaphors aside, the festival deserves its widespread reputation as a hipster-heavy network-a-thon that saturates Austin from downtown to the sticks with more man-hours of music than could possibly be experienced in a standard human year. It’s fun.

I arrive in Austin before the official beginning of the music festival, while the interactive tech and film expos are still in full swing, and before you can say “Wes Anderson” I’m comfortably installed on a patio, chatting with a group of Portlanders about different brands of free-range chicken. I’m off to a comfortable head start on all my stereotypes.

The main drag on Sixth Street is already fairly happening, though it’ll get exponentially more clogged as the week goes on. I spy a familiar face through the open window of the Bat Bar: it’s icon of awkwardness Michael Cera, playing bass with his supergroup-of-a-sort Mister Heavenly. The band is rounded by members of the Unicorns, Man Man, and Modest Mouse, but it’s pretty clear who the gaggle of college girls are crowding around to see, cell phones straining upwards for photos like a curious herd of electric giraffes.

Mister Heavenly – Mister Heavenly

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— , May 10, 2011    3 Comments

If you’re anything like us here at Ca Va Cool – meaning you get a lot of your music from blogs and CBC “Top 10!” Radio 3 – you won’t be able to avoid Mother Mother’s new single ‘The Stand’ for very long. You may as well check out the album that surrounds it, too. Eureka is the third release for the quintet from Quadra Island, BC, and like Touch Up and O My Heart it’s driving and unsettling pop music, tailored to dark moods and indie dance nights. Menacing three-part harmonies and the quirky personalities of frontman Ryan Guldemond and his little sister Molly continue to define the band’s style and edge.

Where Mother Mother’s songs have usually been frantic and folky with plenty of mid-song changeups in time and key, Eureka keeps things steadier and adds a generous handful of synths. The outstanding opener ‘Chasing It Down’ folds in a bit of John Lennon, while ‘Calm Me Down’ channels the Strokes circa First Impressions of Earth, flaring out in an anthemic chant and marking the first time Mother Mother has offered up an excellent closing track. The band’s not afraid to reach into its bag of used tricks — some melodies in particular will strike the dedicated fan as more than a little familiar, which would be troubling if the entire album was just a tinkering rework of older stuff, but it’s not. It’s definitely evolutionary, like a new actor playing a familiar role, and the recycled material sounds different enough among the synths and stronger beats.

Back to ‘The Stand’: Mother Mother has this curious tradition of picking highly challenging radio singles. They tend to be grating, infuriating, and fascinating, both in music and lyrics, and ‘The Stand’ could hardly fit in any better. ‘Polynesia’ was nonsensical and ‘Hayloft’ was violent, and ‘The Stand’ is bizarre in its own way: a defensive, mean-spirited, awkward, sexually charged conversation between the male Guldemond and a legion of fans – critics? doctors? good old-fashioned disembodied voices? – trying to get into his head. It’s catchy as hell, which is why you’ll probably encounter it soon through one medium or another if you haven’t already. Guldemond only reluctantly starts spilling his neuroses as the track begins, but here he is releasing the damn thing as a single. Add to all this the fact that the challenging lines are given voice by the guy’s baby sister, and you’ve got a psychoanalyst’s dream — and an infectious song that I know I’ll get sick of at some point, but certainly haven’t yet. As they begin to deal with expanding crowds and rising expectations, this weird earworm of a single, and to a lesser degree the album that surrounds it, further establishes Mother Mother as an excellent source of whimsy and affable creepiness.

Mother Mother – The Stand
Mother Mother – Chasing It Down

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— , April 7, 2011    2 Comments

All Photographs by Vanessa Heins

When last we spoke to the Rural Alberta Advantage, Canada’s premier suppliers of hard-driving indie folk and small-town nostalgia, they were a friendly, fresh-faced band with the glow of recently signing with Saddle Creek for their debut album. Recently at South by Southwest, they were a friendly, fresh-faced band with the glow of recently dropping their outstanding sophomore album. They look good in glow. Ca Va Cool’s Josh Penslar joined forces with Mathew Katz of Colorado’s KDNK Radio in an alley behind Home Slice Pizza in Austin, Texas to talk with the trio about their SXSW experiences, being Canadian in the States, the proper relation between Texas and Alberta, and what covers the band is secretly prepared to play if you ask nicely. 

The Rural Alberta Advantage – Stamp
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Eye of the Tiger

Ca Va Cool: How’s the festival been so far? Exhausting at all? 

Amy Cole: I dunno, we’ve been good. Yesterday we played our shows and we went back to the house we’re staying in and went to bed at an extremely reasonable hour. I think it was 11 PM. [Laughs] We’re really boring. But it was good for us, because now we’re energized for the rest of the fest. We had a long drive the previous day, so now I think we’re ready to really experience things. 

CVC: Where were you guys coming from? 

Amy: Atlanta. 

CVC: That’s a big one. So I hear you’ve played South By before. How does this year compare? 

Paul Banwatt: I mean, we’re veterans, you know? We’ve been around the block. For example, we call it ‘South By’. We don’t feel like we have to… 

Amy: I just say South. 

Paul: Sometimes we’re just like S-X. 

Amy: You know what I mean. 

Paul: Every year is fun here. Our first year was definitely special cause we came down and got signed. So every year after that is a bit of a disappointment because we can never top that experience. But it’s still really fun and everyone keeps coming out to our shows. We’re playing like six shows, so the fact that there’s people there at every single one, that’s crazy. 

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— , March 31, 2011    Comments Off on The Rural Alberta Advantage

Photograph by Vanessa Heins

Expectations should be higher than average for Departing since the Rural Alberta Advantage’s debut Hometowns was such a revelation: unpretentious, compelling indie folk drawn through the emotional mesh of all that we must leave behind. Plus, it had some kickass drums. Hometowns was also Ca Va Cool’s runner-up for album of the year in 2009, which is a lot for anyone to deal with — we’re all worried about how Arcade Fire are going to handle it this year — but somehow the RAA have overcome the pressure, and barring a local music explosion of 2003ian proportions, Departing is on track to be one of the best Canadian releases of the year. The only way it fails to live up to Hometowns is by not arriving as a total surprise. It crackles with the same intelligence and intensity and good-natured melancholy that kept Hometowns on repeat for longer than I’d like to admit.

The title Departing is curious, either a wink or a bit of wishful thinking, since the band definitely hasn’t left the space occupied by their debut. Like Hometowns, Departing is about the cities we lead our lives in and the romantic partners we share our lives with, and what happens to them and to us when they move out of our lives and into our histories. Edmonton is treated like a girlfriend who has drifted away, complete with hard feelings and awkward reunions. Unnamed ex-lovers suggest streets and landmarks full of memory. In this context, love and loss manage to sound fresh and penetrating instead of fading into familiar singer-songwriter mush.

The strength of the RAA’s sound is still its simplicity. Paul Banwatt’s manic beats sit up front with reedy vocals by Nils Edenloff (and occasionally Amy Cole) and never have to fight for space. The new album shows the stretch marks of a bigger budget — tour receipts probably paid for some nicer microphones, which can be dangerous to a charming DIY sound, but Departing pulls through with plenty of raucousness when it’s needed. The best rock tracks here, ‘Stamp’ and ‘Barnes’ Yard’, make appropriate use of better production values, while more reflective tracks like ‘North Star’ enjoy the rawness that worked so well on Hometowns.

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— , February 22, 2011    1 Comment

Photograph by Autumn de Wilde

When considering where to take your career after a hectic prog/folk opera about immortal forest sprites, featuring guest stars with enough indie cred to melt the Pitchfork offices to the ground, you really only have two options: go big or go home. The Decemberists, curiously, chose to go home. After five LPs and nearly a decade of growing steadily weirder, louder, more ambitious and more pretentious, Colin Meloy has taken his band in for reformatting. Despite the imposing title, The King Is Dead contains no eleven-minute song cycles or Roman numerals or subtitles. The Decemberists have been notable for hurtling down that path even after signing with a major label in 2005, but with the new release we suddenly find them back in the comparatively mainstream world of moderately quirky alt-country. It’s jarring, but not unwelcome.

Understandably for a group looking to get back to basics, The King Is Dead sounds exceedingly close to Meloy’s former band Tarkio, a University of Montana project from before Meloy moved to Portland to join the indie gold rush. Harmonica and hints of blues are everywhere, as though this disc fell out of a parallel universe where the Decemberists rode out Neil Young’s slipstream rather than Neutral Milk Hotel’s. What doesn’t sound like Tarkio or Young sounds like Meloy’s other deep influences — ’80s/’90s alternative rock like R.E.M. and Irish folk artists like Shirley Collins — but above all The King Is Dead is soaked in Tarkio’s Montana earnestness.

Some of the band’s surviving pop sensibilities are sacrificed along with the prog oddity, and the album only contains only one real rock song in its lead single ‘Down by the Water’. Meloy’s imaginative word choices also take a heavy hit this time around — I always liked to picture him in another life as a satisfied AP English teacher, fussing with a red pen over exam questions like “charabanc is to balustrade as palanquin is to a) bombazine; b) folderol; c) parapet; d) pantaloon,” but the new lyrics are largely stripped of his trademark vocabulary lessons. The King Is Dead’s more candid attitude does pay off, though. ‘January Hymn’ in particular is one of their strongest ballads so far, sanding down the coarse, conflicted aesthetic of ‘Red Right Ankle’ into something that rings more clearly.

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— , January 10, 2011    4 Comments