Music » Music Stories

SXSWow: In the weeks leading up to and after SXSW, St. Louis draws some of music's biggest talents to town. This year is no exception.

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Andrew Bird is one hell of a whistler. He takes the relatively simple act of passing air between pursed lips and turns it into a sweeping, tremulous instrument. His whistles lend his songs an airy, lightweight grace and serve as his sonic calling card. But if whistling were Bird's greatest skill, his many fans would quickly tire of the quirk. Instead, he's built a following for his musicianship — which employs both classical techniques and experimental bravery — and his always verbose (and often absurd) lyrical wordplay.

Trained from an early age on the violin but equally adept at the guitar and glockenspiel (all of which he furiously juggles during live performances), Bird builds songs from melodic loops and straightforward folk-rock rhythms. A typical song will employ several harmonic lines that dip, dive and eventually converge, while his lyrics match the music more in the mellifluousness of sound than through storytelling or emotional transmission. Those looking for deep truths in his words will either be disappointed or forced to create their own meaning.

Bird has long been a star of the underground, but his profile continues to rise with each release. Although jazz and swing music from the 1920s influenced his early work, the one-two punch of 2003's Weather Systems and 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs introduced Bird as a songwriter capable of pop genius amid serpentine arrangements. This year's Noble Beast uses a grander orchestral palette and a greater use of sonic white space while continuing his progression toward indie-rock accessibility.

His manner of composing songs may verge on the scientific, but his lust for the off-kilter and outré hasn't been sacrificed as he inches toward the mainstream: Special editions of Beast came paired with the disc Useless Creatures, a series of instrumental pieces performed with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and upright bassist Todd Sickafoose. — Christian Schaeffer
8 p.m. Sunday, March 15. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $22 advance, $25 day of show. 314-726-6161.

Alexandra Lawn always knew that she wanted to be a cellist when she grew up. The Ra Ra Riot member started playing the instrument at the age of three — "My father couldn't stand the sound of little tiny violins," she laughs. "The little tiny cello was the lesser of two evils"— and idolized Shostakovich, Yo-Yo Ma and her cello teacher. Naturally, joining a rock band wasn't quite on her agenda.

"Honestly, learning more about rock music," Lawn says, when asked what the biggest adjustment was upon joining Ra Ra Riot, which formed at Syracuse University in 2006. "Going to college obviously helped that. I wasn't totally out of the loop; I listened to Top 40 on the radio. Bands that people listened to in high school — like Zeppelin. But the biggest adjustment was just opening my eyes and learning what tasteful rock is and what good old music there is out there."

That sense of discovery permeates Ra Ra Riot's music, as does a childlike innocence and a hyperactive stage presence. Still, these elements mask a young band familiar with great heartache and turmoil: In June of 2007, drummer John Pike allegedly drowned after a show.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pike's spirit hangs over much of The Rhumb Line, Ra Ra Riot's debut full-length for Barsuk Records; he wrote or co-wrote half of the songs. But Line is a celebration rather than a eulogy, an optimistic album that features sophisticated strings, rubbery basslines and Wes Miles' wide-eyed, soulful vocals. Undulating beats drive standout "Oh, La" — a comforting, Death Cab-like rocker that preaches the power of two: "We've got a lot to learn from each other/We have got to stick together" — while the group's lovely cover of Kate Bush's "Suspended in Gaffa" sounds like a virginal DeVotchKa.

"She's definitely a favorite of the band," Lawn says of Bush. "She's a huge inspiration to many of us. We cover 'Hounds of Love,' but 'Suspended in Gaffa'...the summer of 2007, [that song was] all on our mix CDs and stuff. And one day we sat down and all started playing it, and it was so much fun to play that it ended up on the album." — Annie Zaleski
9 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. The Billiken Club, in the Busch Student Center on the campus of Saint Louis University, 20 North Grand Boulevard. Free.

Few bands do a better job of capturing the eerie surrealism of 21st-century life than Handsome Furs. The husband-wife duo creates music that comes from an outside observer's standpoint, where each song is something of a foreign correspondent's small commentary or status report on the nature of things on the ground. Songs address the effects of socio-political issues and the personal loneliness that persists, even though we're all constantly connected and under surveillance.

These post-modern observations comprise the themes of Handsome Furs' new album, Face Control. Minimalist drum-machine pulses, droning synth robotics, and gritty guitar yelps and squalls serve as the perfect sonic landscape for this type of relevant commentary. "When you tour, you end up finding a kinship with people and places you wouldn't have necessarily expected," says drum-machinist/keyboardist Alexei Perry. "Sometimes the writing stems from conversations we've had with people we've met, and sometimes it stems from wanting to have a dialogue with people that are living in some of the countries we're playing in who have no idea who we are."

But while many artists might take a staunch political stance in their music, Perry says that Handsome Furs doesn't really strive to push a specific agenda. Instead, on songs like "Talking Hotel Arbat Blues," singer/guitarist (and Wolf Parade member) Dan Boeckner laments, "I don't know but I've been told, every little thing has been bought and sold" over a foundation of blues-based fury. The song draws from the same twentieth-century pop-music constructs that we've all come to accept and incorporate into our modern consumer-driven reality.

"We're just trying to comment on the experiences that we're having very personally," Perry says. "I don't have any political agenda myself. I don't really ascribe to any ideology in my life or in my work at all. But I do think that there is [something] lacking in a lot of the music that's being created right now. Especially within popular indie-rock music, [musicians aren't] talking about the world we're living in. I definitely want to do that." — Shae Moseley
8 p.m. Monday, March 16. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $10. 314-773-3363.

The world wants to know: After giving away his last album online, what will Saul Williams do for an encore?

The 37-year-old poet, MC and rocker hasn't decided yet. But eighteen months after making The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! available for free — and for five bucks to those who wanted a higher-quality copy — Williams is convinced of one thing: The experiment was a success, artistically as well as logistically.

That, Williams believes, is because Niggy — a collaboration with Trent Reznor — was thematically related to its revolutionary delivery system, shared by Radiohead and copied since by others.

"Niggy was supposed to initiate a discussion about freedom," explains Williams, via phone from a tour date at the University of North Carolina. "What is the cost of freedom? And then, to be able to deliver that idea in a way that circles around freedom — being that it is free! You can take it for free, if you's been all blessing. It happened exactly as it should have."

Williams is still playing songs from the album, released in late 2007 (and now available through iTunes), and thinks it marked a major shift. "On Niggy, I was saying I had been standing in the way of my own growth. You have all these self-imposed definitions. Niggy Tardust was saying, I am all of those things, I am none of these things. I am myself."

Ever since his days reciting poetry at the Big Apple's Nuyorican Poets Café and in the film Slam, Williams has been deft at defying expectations, setting his words to backdrops provided by everyone from Rick Rubin to symphony orchestras.

So as one might guess, he says his next album, on which he's working with TV on the Radio's David Sitek, is "in a really different space than Niggy." Williams described it late last year as a "discussion of percussion," but at the moment he's not sure "how to characterize the sound of it. There's a lot of ways this album could be shaped right now."

How it will reach the masses is another open question. "There's so many things happening now. And I don't have anything against the idea of working with a label," he says. "At this point, I have no idea. I have to see how the songs shape up. The songs will decide it."— Dan LeRoy
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $25 in advance, $28 day of show. 314-726-6161.

With more than 1,000 shows under its belt, the High Strung is one of the hardest-working bands in rock & roll today. It's the kind of group that has the chutzpah to donate its graffiti-riddled van to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but the bookish humility to perform a cross-country tour in public libraries. The band recently took a five-month break from its relentless tour schedule to return to Detroit and record two new albums, the first of which, Ode to the Inverse of the Dude, is due out April 24.

"When I'm not working, I feel tremendous guilt," admits singer/guitarist Josh Malerman, who was putting the finishing touches on an as-yet untitled side project minutes before we spoke. But guilt seems to be the least of his worries as he discusses the Woody Allen-levels of hyper-self-reflexivity involved in Ode.

"It's basically about neuroses," says Malerman. "It's about being sick of always being thought of as the same person — 'Josh is working. Josh is touring. Josh is making another record.' For one second, I'd like to be the ill-advised, wasteful artist." Ode, in effect, is a celebration of not being yourself all the time. "Cheers to the opposite of you!" he laughs.

Propped up by the stupendous talents of Derek Berk and Chad Stocker on drums and bass, respectively, Ode finds the band rehearsing a new identity. While past albums have showcased the rhythmic bombast of a traveling jam band packaged with the pop precision of Cheap Trick, the new record feels looser and less restrained, like early Flaming Lips on a psychoanalytic bent. "It's definitely a bigger studio sound," explains Malerman, "but it's not a rock sound. It's more graceful."

Producer David Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!) harnessed this gracefulness with subtle flourishes. "David would suggest we add a third guitar part here or a harmony there, but it doesn't really sound like that much more is going on," says Malerman. "It's more of a mood than a million things going on at once."— Todd McKenzie
9 p.m. Friday, March 13. The Firebird, 2706 Olive Street. $8 21-plus, $10 under 21. 314-535-0353.

Whether playing tiny loft spaces or rocking summer festival crowds, Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim has developed a reputation for its unabashedly enthusiastic live show. As lead singer/keyboardist Matt Johnson bashes out short, sharp, new-wavy melodies, drummer Kim Schifino pounds her minimal drum kit with an ever-present grin. There's simply no other band having this much obvious fun playing music.

Mike Appelstein:  As you play bigger shows, do you have to change your approach?

Matt Johnson: I remember fearing that as we were going in to play our first festivals. I just wondered how it was going to go with barricades twenty feet away. But we just did what we always do, which was just be honest, crack jokes and be dorky as if we were playing in a basement somewhere. And the response has been amazing! We play a simple type of music, and I think it's easy to project that in a big space as well as a small, crowded space.

How do you prepare for shows?

We basically just want to have a party; we play Top 40 hip-hop and stuff like that between bands. That just sets up the whole night appropriately. We try to set up a fun atmosphere overall. Like we've been bringing this guy on tour with us, Hollywood Holt. He's a rapper but absolutely nuts, and gets everyone excited. It's like genre doesn't matter as long as the energy is in the right place.

When you're recording, do you have the live shows in mind?  Or is the record something else entirely?

With Grand we tried to make the best recorded album we could. But my favorite live and recorded bands are very different. I listen to hip-hop because the production is so interesting and exciting, but when I go to punk-rock shows, people are stage-diving and tearing the walls down. But that's not necessarily the music I put on my stereo at home.— Mike Appelstein
9 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. The Gargoyle, on the campus of Washington University at Forsyth and Skinker boulevards. Sold out. 314-935-5917.

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