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March 7, 2006
Hype is such an ugly word

Sooner or later, my discussion of SXSW would fall upon those two dreaded words: “hype” and “backlash.” So let’s get ‘em out of the way now. We all know the drill. A new band generates excitement, and their admirers absurdly overpraise them. Their detractors, in response, absurdly overcriticize them.

Fortunately for those of us in the middle, these opinions balance out and we eventually reach some sort of consensus. The merits of the following acts, however, are still open to fierce, nerdy debate, and lots of festival-goers will be looking to form their own expert opinions on each.

Three exciting young indie-pop acts take the stage tonight. Too bad that only one of ‘em’s a reliable live act. Annie is a sugary yet wry Norwegian electro-cutie whose rehabbed disco is thrilling on her debut, Anniemal. But she’s shy live, and has a hard time enlivening her studio-crafted music. The Go! Team, on the other hand, are simply too much—engaging and energetic on disc, their hyper cheerleading onstage is downright terrifying.

A better bet than either is Art Brut, a hilarious crew of British three-chord ranters lead by the wiry Eddie Argos, whose hype I’ve done a bit to cultivate myself.

Tonight, two examples of how the cycle of hype and backlash has accelerated to a crazy blur. In the past, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Dr. Dog would have ridden into Austin high atop the crest of advance warning. Now, they may be a couple months too late.

I'm impressed that CYHSY have put a new twist on two old indie rock trends not much in fashion these days--geeky David Byrne-style vocals and on the driving, flat Velvet Underground rave-up. The support of online indie-rock boosters Pitchfork ensured that the backlash would be just as intense as the praise, though. Dr. Dog, who smartly tweak the pleasant feel of 70s pop-rock, were lauded in the New York Times before most folks in their native Philly had caught on to them. I hope everyone hasn't forgotten them already.

When it comes right down to it, nobody does hype like the British. The ever-excitable NME is a veritable hype-factory in print. And true to form, they’ve already dubbed the Arctic Monkeys’ new Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not the third greatest album of all time. That disc--the fastest-selling debut in U.K. history—is attracting some Yanks now as well, though I find that Alex Turner’s misogyny (and for that matter his misanthropy) dull the pleasures of his acute observations and the band’s precise postpunk attack.

More Brits elsewhere: Songstress KT Tunstall will loop her guitar stylings to perform as a full-fledged one-woman band, and the mopey chic Cure fans in Editors will endeavor to prove that 80s new wave is an inexhaustible well of musical influence. The Boy Least Likely To, meanwhile are fey, weedy lads with childlike obsessions and cute tunes to match.

I’m skeptical about closing night's standouts. Dour and folksy, Okkervil River are one of those bands I’m told I’ll appreciate more if I focus on the lyrics, but whose sadsackery always ruins my concentration. As for Nine Black Alps, they play expert faux pop-grunge, which should make them a treat for anyone who misses the mid-90s and who hasn't heard of Local H.

Morningwood are glam, trashy New York new wavers with song titles like “Take Off Your Clothes” that give you a sense of their musical mission. But Lady Sovereign is by far the most talented of this night’s lot. A world with a short, white, female, British rap star would be weirder in all the right ways, and Sov’s been chatting with Jay-Z, who’s just the guy who can make it happen.

So that’s it for the headline-grabbers. I’m sure I overlooked a few, so feel free to remind me (or argue with me) in the comments.

Oh, and it’ll be a helluva hassle to get into any of these shows, but that’s a subject for another day.

Posted by Keith Harris at 12:11 PM