Austin Takeover

Seattle bands seek acclaim at this year’s SXSW.

It's that time of year again when some of the city's finest musicians pack up and head to Austin for the much-heralded South by Southwest music festival. It's the place where "breakout bands" get labeled as such, and just being invited to the festival is a serious honor. The city of Seattle is naturally going to be well-represented, with more than 30 acts selected to play officially, and even more heading to Texas anyway to play unofficial gigs and parties. There's no way we could profile all of them, but here's the lowdown on a handful of acts that should find lots of success at this year's SXSW. Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band This talented five-piece seemingly arose out of nowhere last July and were getting write-ups on popular indie-rock blog Stereogum before they'd played a single show. That's hard to do, but it speaks volumes about how tight their recorded music was at the time, and about how competent their initial marketing strategy was: releasing quirky public-service announcements in lieu of posting music on their MySpace page, which naturally left more questions than answers. Now that MSHVB has released their self-titled debut, they're setting off on an extensive nationwide tour, of which their seven SXSW dates are only a small portion. But if they do well in Texas, playing their sped-up, angular indie-rock tunes, something tells me they'll be touring overseas before the end of the year. Fences Fences' Ultimate Puke EP doesn't quite deliver what its title implies—to me it implies crusty, 45-second basement-punk songs about spanging and drunken fisticuffs. In fact, this collection of sparse, melancholy folk songs is pretty much the antithesis of the assumptions I had when the EP landed on my desk several months ago. Frontman Chris Mansfield sings about his troubles with the weary resignation of someone who's been kicked around by life and doesn't expect the situation to change anytime soon. But unlike the work of other songwriters whose songs are so saturated with pathos that they're difficult to listen to unless your psyche's in a similar state, Mansfield's pretty folk melodies command such attention that at first you might miss the brutal statements that pepper the album—statements like "I never felt love" and "I didn't always feel like shit." Fences' presence at SXSW this year is strictly unofficial, but since Mansfield's currently in Victoria, recording with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara, don't be surprised if next spring finds the band on a newfound record label, playing an official showcase with a whole new lease on life. Champagne Champagne Hip-hop in Seattle is multifaceted. You've got the backpacker set, the party rappers, the street lyricists, and at times thug rappers—none of whom seem to interact at all. But in the music of Champagne Champagne, you can hear traces of the best elements of all these subgenres. They've been playing shows for several years now, but have recently started gaining more acclaim with the release of singles like the synthed-out "Molly Ringwald" and "Radio Raheem," a touching song about how the trio's lead MC, Pearl Dragon, lost his younger brother to police brutality. On their self-titled debut, they switch among various production styles, which should serve them well at SXSW: Just when you think you've got the group figured out, they morph. But their rhymes are tight, and their beats are as adventurous as anything coming out of Seattle right now. Hey Marseilles Critics like throwing around the terms "orchestral pop" and "chamber pop" with little regard for what that actually implies, but Hey Marseilles' diverse smattering of instruments make them one of the few bands who deserve those titles. Like most bands, they've got guitar, bass, and percussion, but that's just the beginning; their formidable arsenal also includes accordion, piano, trumpet, organ, mandolin, banjo, cello, and viola. With so many instruments at their disposal, it'd be easy for them to make like a kid in a candy store and overdo it on every song. And yet the band understands something about composition: Just because you can incorporate every instrument doesn't mean you should. For all the room-filling beauty of the symphonic climaxes on their first full-length album, there's just as much power—and passion—in the record's simplest, sparsest moments. What makes To Travels & Trunks so incredibly intoxicating, however, is something less definitive than notes and measures: A youthful earnestness, a genuine, unsullied passion for song, shines through every last second of Hey Marseilles' music. It's like the Decemberists, but less contrived (and happily, less nasal); like Beirut, but less derivative; like Neutral Milk Hotel once was, but less jaded. And though it's hard to pick a favorite track, if your heart doesn't swell along with the strings in "Cannonballs," it might just be because you don't have one. Battle Hymns Even though songwriter Cameron Elliott's newest band, Battle Hymns, conquered his old group, the Western States, a while back, it's not cause for pathos in the way that most band breakups can be. It's just that Elliott found it easier to grow as a musician under a new moniker. With the exception of new drummer Barry Uhl, the Battle Hymns' lineup remains more or less the same as the Western States'. What you'll find, too, is that they perform more or less the same function: crafting accomplished pop songs held up by a stiff Americana backbone and filled out with the soul of rock 'n' roll. For a full list of Seattle bands headed to SXSW, visit blogs.seattleweekly.com/reverb.

 
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