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Album Review: Lissie – Castles

 
By on Tuesday, 27th March 2018 at 12:00 pm
 

Lissie Castles coverWhen we at TGTF last spoke to American singer/songwriter Lissie in a post-show interview at SXSW 2016, she had just moved from California back to her midwestern home of Iowa to find her roots after years living on the West Coast. She was also touring her album ‘My Wild West’, which was written and recorded as a kind of farewell to California. Now firmly established in the Midwest, Lissie has released a new record titled ‘Castles’, which is as much an exploration in musical sounds as it is an examination of the life she’s created for herself.

Ironically, despite Lissie’s decampment to farm country, the songs on ‘Castles’ are less organic sounding than you might expect, especially from a woman whose last album was firmly grounded in folk rock. Working with a host of collaborators including electronic artist Nick Tesoriero, Lissie has fashioned a dreamy, ethereal soundscape of synths, drum machines, and distant backing vocals. “When I wrote on a guitar I felt limited”, she says. “It was so much more spontaneous and natural to sit down with someone who would give me a beat and a chord progression on a synthesizer. I started having all these new ideas.” Lissie’s sonic experimentation places ‘Castles’ into a pop/r&b scenario, and while she doesn’t venture into uncharted pop territory, it’s a new sound for her, and the result is, predictably, a bit patchy.

Opening track ‘World Away’ sets the sonic tone with a hazy dream pop sound apropos to an album called ‘Castles.’ But Lissie’s raw singing voice, which was powerful enough to cut through hefty guitars and drums on ‘My Wild West’, doesn’t sit as comfortably in the new synthesised backdrop. Her natural raspiness occasionally comes across as abrasive, and the thinner underlying arrangements expose the squareness in her lyrics and vocal delivery.

The album gains momentum early with a strong trilogy of songs. Lissie’s voice is strong in title track ‘Castles’, whose fairy tale analogy and catchy refrain are immediately engaging. Piano ballad ‘Blood & Muscle’ (https://www.theregoesthefear.com/2017/12/video-of-the-moment-2750-lissie.php) has a smoky quality that suits the natural timbre of her singing, especially as the chorus builds to its dynamic climax. ‘Best Days’ has a  country rock feel which might have worked even better had Lissie more fully committed to it, under lyrics about wanting both “a pickup truck” and “a diamond ring”.

From there, the album begins to lose traction. ‘Feel Good’ and ‘Boyfriend’ carry on the country rock flavour, but the lyrics in both are trite and slightly preachy, as Lissie sings in the latter, “I don’t want a lover, I want a man / coming from the heart now, living in my heartland”. In an attempt to branch out from country rock, Lissie makes two overtures to r&b on ‘Castles’, neither of which is particularly successful. The vocal delivery in ‘Crazy Girl’ feels contrived when she sings “I’ve been talkin’ shit all of the time, other girls foolin’ around”, and the effect is amplified later in the tracklisting in ‘Love Blows’, where the understated synth backing exaggerates the stilted, uncomfortable lyrical rhythm.

Near the end of the album in ‘Peace’, Lissie softens her tone and weaves her voice delicately between the bass groove and the exotic plucked string instrumentation. Here she finds a sweet spot, and though the moment doesn’t last long, it’s an interesting suggestion of where she could potentially take this new soundscape. Final track ‘Meet Me in the Mystery’ is another strong piano ballad whose minor key harmonies reflect the elusiveness in its title, while electric guitar, synths, and percussion create a dramatic tonal tapestry behind Lissie’s naturally bewitching vocals.

‘Castles’ is without a doubt a brave departure from Lissie’s former folk rock sound. She gathered a host of contributors, including collaborators from ‘My Wild West’ and producers AG and Liam Howe to help her navigate the new soundscape but in the end, the album may have suffered from “too many chefs in the kitchen” without enough definitive direction or intent.

6.5/10

Lissie’s new album ‘Castles’ is out now on Cooking Vinyl. She will play a run of four live dates in the UK in April; you can find all the details here. TGTF’s previous coverage of Lissie is collected back here.

 

Video of the Moment #2811: Rae Morris

 
By on Monday, 26th March 2018 at 6:00 pm
 

Singer/songwriter Rae Morris released a new album last month, when we had our blinders on preparing for SXSW 2018. Which is a shame, because from what I’ve read, and from some famous friends (!), the pop artist’s ‘Someone Out There’ is quite the collection of ‘choones. She has now unveiled the video for the album’s title track single. In an amazing show of what is possible when you ring up all your relatives, the promo for ‘Someone Out There’ stars three generations of Morris’ family, a bevy of adorable dogs that you wish you could reach into the screen and squeeze their little cheeks and even members of Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service. Why fire personnel? Morris’ own father was a firefighter, so the video stars people Morris has known since she was a child. Filmed in Blackpool where Morris spent her much of her child, the promo for ‘Someone Out There’ is like a love letter to the place where she once dreamt of being a star. Doesn’t get any better than that, does it? Watch the video below. ‘Someone Out There’ the LP is out now on Atlantic Records. For more of our past coverage on Rae Morris, come through.

 

SXSW 2018: Wednesday afternoon at German Haus and a conference session on Music and the Brain – 14th March 2018 (Part 2)

 
By on Monday, 26th March 2018 at 1:00 pm
 

There are two nice things about afternoon showcases. You get to see acts in less claustrophobic confines, and you can see them without really worrying about running off to your next showcase. Two excellent reasons, if you ask me! Following my time at the JW Marriott for The Original Celebrity Chefs and Restaurants session, I returned to German Haus at Barracuda for two German acts I was excited to see and hear live. When I arrived, a bald Brit with a guitar was on the Barracuda indoor stage, playing to a small, but entirely appreciative crowd. I was confused. Hrm. He definitely didn’t have a German accent. What was he doing there? I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t recognise Midge Ure of Ultravox and Visage fame. Don’t hit me. I feel embarrassed enough!

Midge Ure at German Haus Wednesday at SXSW 2018

You have understand that during SXSW, most of us aren’t checking our emails, and I certainly did not see the German Haus missive that he would be part of the screening of Conny Plank – The Potential of Noise and its related panel that afternoon on which Ure would appear. I can see this was one of those times that it probably would have helped to have the event to all, or at least wristband holders in addition to badgeholders. But maybe Ure appreciated playing to a small crowd for once?

Blackberries at German Haus Wednesday at SXSW 2018

I ran out of time to write up my best bets of groups from the Continent showcasing at SXSW, but I have an Excel spreadsheet with many tabs to prove I did all the research if you want to see it. Blackberries were on my list because they’re exactly what you don’t expect from Germany. I think these days, German artists from outside Berlin are overshadowed by the electronic scene in the capital. Blackberries hail from Solingen, in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany, and have their unique perspective on what krautrock means in 2018. How often do you see psych rock being performed with maracas? I had an idea in my head even before I got to Austin that British artists would be less important to my experience at SXSW than in past years, and that prediction turned out to be right.

Munich experimental electronic duo Joasihno were set up back inside Barracuda. Synth heads, this was a wet your pants moment. If Cico Beck and Nico Sierig’s extended tabletop setup was filled with the usual keyboards, synths and sequencers, I might not have been as impressed. I might have even yawned. Instead, their unusual collection of equipment, which included a mechanically activated xylophone, rods that spun around and what looked like rocks connected to wires (???), plus loads of other things that looked like something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory. This kind of music couldn’t be further from Taylor Swift and other pop stars who top the charts.

Joasihno at German Haus Wednesday at SXSW 2018

And you know what? That’s okay. Some of us want to be entertained with new sounds and in new ways. Ryan Walsh said in his talk Wednesday afternoon that 1/3 of the world’s population makes music sometime in their lives. There’s plenty of artists out there now and will be in the future to satisfy all of our music listening needs. And that’s good news for everyone.

I returned to the convention center for one of the last conference sessions of the day, Music and the Brain: How Sounds Become Pleasurable. The first two talks were given by Dr. Alain Dagher, a neurologist and professor at McGill University, and Pablo Samuel Castro from Google. Dr. Dagher began with an explanation on how dopamine release mediating the desire for pleasure, whether it be in anticipation of listening to music or eating food we like. I guess this was a good starting point, as I would guess most attendees didn’t know how dopamine and reward-seeking behavior worked. (I took pharmacology in university and the classic example of dopamine activity is the abuse of cocaine and the feedback mechanism in the human body, so this was simply a refresher for me.) I guess, too, that it isn’t surprising that the reason why as children or young adults we remember music from those periods of our formative years. However, it appears that the reason for these memories is not because our brains were still developing at the time, but because the pleasure we associate with listening to those pieces of music when we were younger essentially burns into our memories. One step further, moderator and third speaker Indre Viskontas of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music showed evidence later in the session that our brains can anticipate specific moments in song that are associated with stronger feelings, such as that feeling of a pleasurable chill down one’s back.

Castro’s talk was about machine learning and artificial intelligence. He specifically had studied building requirements for a computer to learn how to write counterpoints, which J.S. Bach essentially cornered the market on. Read more about his mastery of counterpoint through here. I had a lot of trouble in my early piano-learning years trying to get through Bach, so I was amused to see someone had gone through the trouble to ape his music. Castro played a Bach original against what his computer had come up with and he insisted that the computer had done a pretty good job in approximating the intended counterpoint. My ears weren’t having it, though. As Gunter Loibl of REBEAT Digital said the day before at German Haus indicated, I have every confidence that human being-created and produced music will never be surpassed by AI-made music, at least not in my lifetime.

Music and the Brain Wednesday at SXSW 2018

Before the evening showcases, Carrie and I both checked in at the Townsend for the Focus Wales drink reception. The Townsend is a fancy-schmancy cocktail bar on Congress Avenue. I wondered if the reception would be well attended, as it was a bit off the beaten path when it came to the usual 6th Street-type haunts during SXSW. I don’t know why I was worried. We ran into plenty of friends there, friends who were no doubt tempted by the lure of free drinks and good company. Along with the actual musical performances themselves in Austin, having a drink with your friends is up there with the top experiences you’ll have during SXSW.

 

SXSW 2018: Wednesday afternoon at the convention center – 14th March 2018 (Part 1)

 
By on Monday, 26th March 2018 at 11:00 am
 

Carrie left for the Austin Convention Center early to catch Lyor Cohen’s keynote, so stay tuned for her report from that session. Shortly after that wrapped up, I was headed to the Beyond Music: The Secret Economy of Music session led by Ryan Walsh, current partner at Floodgate Fund, a venture capital firm. Walsh has a particularly interesting background, in that he was formerly VP of Product at Beats Music and also worked in product management for media at Apple. I think a lot of us have the impression that people who work in higher-up positions at companies like Apple aren’t as savvy about what’s going on in their business as they should be, or at least they don’t want to talk to people like us. I decided before the sessions that I would bolt if I was bored or felt talked down to. Spoiler: I was overwhelmingly pleasantly surprised.

I found Walsh an incredibly compelling speaker, with a down to earth manner as he spoke on the gaps he saw open in the music industry. This is a man whose passion about our industry is evident from everything he knows and all he is willing to communicate. Loads of people say they want to help artists get paid properly, but very few have communicated this in such a way that I felt they were genuine. It is hard to find people in this business who don’t ultimately turn out to be self-servers. I don’t know Walsh personally, but he doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a venture capitalist as I have imagined them, existing for the sole purpose to chasing after the next big thing that will make them loads of money and that’s it.

Ryan Walsh of Floodgate
Photo of Ryan Walsh from his Twitter

As he talked about the exponentially growing Soundcloud user base and where the holes were in the major label ecosystem, it was like listening to any number of hyper-engaging professors whose biology lectures I sat in on in university, wide-eyed with wonderment. It was the most positive, data-supported, forward-thinking industry talk that I’ve been to IN YEARS. (The music journalism talk I’d attend the next day, which you’ll read about soon here in on TGTF, made me want to punch my fist through a wall after it.) Instead of being yet another talk of doom and gloom, of how our industry is dying and will never recover to its former heights, Walsh painted an optimistic picture of its future. A future that sees artists collaborating, getting along with each other and sharing the spoils of success. A future that sees artists getting smart about how they work on record deals, like SZA and Top Dawg did on ‘Ctrl’, or partnering up with Kobalt’s AWAL, who have reinvented how to interface with and better work with artists so the artists get a bigger piece of the pie. A future that sees people who want to think out of the box not only survive but thrive.

As his talk progressed, I realised that despite how many years I have written about music and thought I was reasonable savvy about how things are done, I actually knew little about the mechanical (if you will) goings-on behind the creation and distribution of music. I clearly have a lot more to learn about all this stuff works. Like all industries, really, success in the music business will become even more being intelligent and agile enough to roll with the punches. Ryan, if I can think up something new and great to contribute to this business, I’ll run it by you!

On an entirely different subject and even outside of Music Wednesday afternoon was The Original Celebrity Chefs and Restaurants, starring moderator, journalist from the Daily Beast and cocktail enthusiast Noah Rothbaum, celebrity chefs and Food Network stars Tyler Florence and Amanda Freitag, and Ti Martin, co-owner of the famed New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace and several other eateries in Houston including Brennan’s. As a major foodie, I was very interested to hear each of them speak at the JW Marriott about their own experiences and what they have drawn from the greats in their profession who came before them and how they have made them who they are today. You can read more about Florence, Freitag and Martin on the internet, so I’m only including here the bits that impressed me the most.

Freitag is one of the several big names on The Food Network, most notably lately as a judge on Chopped. She appeared in Austin to sign copies of her book The Chef Next Door, along with appearing in this session. She spoke about the influence of seeing Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr. Both she and Florence noted that seeing chefs in French toques – those tall, brimless hats favoured by the French – impressed them so much that they knew they wanted to be part of that. Freitag also noted that even though she noticed she was the only woman in the kitchen at her first professional job, she never thought of ever being famous for being a female chef: it was more important to her that she was the best she could be in the kitchen. As one of very few female editors and owners of music Web sites, I relate to this entirely. While I personally understand the problem of missing out opportunities entirely because of being a woman and being a person of color, I think what Freitag said needs to be considered and repeatedly. Prejudice will always exist at some level to all of us. I can be difficult, I know. But work hard and rise above. It will pay off. (I want to be clear that my thought here does not extend to harassment, which should never be tolerated.)

Celebrity Chefs panel Wednesday at SXSW 2018 2
Freitag and Florence at The Original Celebrity Chefs and Restaurants session

Florence’s advice for the audience was “fake it until you make it”, citing his experiences as a young chef in New York, grabbing opportunities as soon as he could and then learning as he went along. It’s clearly paid off, with an empire of stores and restaurants in the San Francisco area and countless tv show concepts at the Food Network under his belt. An audience member asked the panel about the #metoo movement and how it has affected the culinary industry. Without naming or shaming, it was obvious who the audience member was talking about: Italian-American chef Mario Batali, whose career appears to be irreparably damaged by multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Florence volunteered that his staff at the Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco are not allowed to drink while they’re working, circumventing any alcohol-fuelled issues between employees and between employees and customers. Perhaps this seems like a little step, but given the restaurant world being male-dominated, why not take out of a variable that could cause some staff members to be inappropriate?

Martin told stories about how her mother started recruiting little-known chefs for their restaurant, including one Emeril Lagasse. Her mother invited the American culinary world to Commander’s Palace and gave them the kind of hospitality that has since made their restaurant a globally known, world-class destination. Remember that trying to invite a large number of people before the internet was a major undertaking. The whole session was a reminder, too, that before the Food Network and the fame of Lagasse, ‘the celebrity chef’ didn’t exist. Restaurants weren’t the destinations they are today. The hard work of people like Florence, Freitag and Martin and their moving the culinary world forward will make it easy when they are ready to pass the baton to the younger generations. The youngsters are excited to learn and work and innovate in this industry these greats helped to build.

 

Video of the Moment #2810: L.A. Salami

 
By on Friday, 23rd March 2018 at 6:00 pm
 

The ubercool Lookman Adekunle Salami records under the ever cooler name of L.A. Salami. The man, not the cured meat in a rolled shape, began a North American tour yesterday in San Francisco that will continue through the first week of April, ending on the 7th of April at Washington’s DC9. These live dates are all in anticipation of Mister Salami’s sophomore album ‘City of Bootmakers’, scheduled for release on the 13th of April on Rob da Bank’s Sunday Best Recordings. Single ‘Jean is Gone’ from the LP is a fun one, and it’s got an equally fun video, shot on handheld cameras and capturing early spring sunshine in Paris. Filmed by Salami’s friend Diane Sagnier, the promo video is a series of clips featuring various Parisian landmarks and Lookman’s seemingly effortless choreography. Watch it below. For more on L.A. Salami, including my coverage of him at SXSW 2017, go here.

 

SXSW 2018: Monday night with American bands at the Mohawk – 12th March 2018

 
By on Friday, 23rd March 2018 at 2:00 pm
 

My time in Austin for SXSW 2018 was a little bit condensed in comparison to past years. Mary and I have typically both arrived early to catch the beginning of the music festival action (which Mary was able to do this year as well; you can read her Monday reports here and here). But this year, I didn’t arrive in Austin until Monday evening, so as soon as my flight landed at Bergstrom International Airport, I made a mad dash for downtown to catch as much music as I possibly could. After a quick stop at the Convention Center to grab my credentials, I headed to the Mohawk on Red River, which was already almost full in anticipation of the three American bands on the evening’s lineup.

Bully

The first band on the Mohawk’s outdoor stage was Nashville grunge rock band Bully. We previewed them in our (SXSW 2018 flavoured!) Video of the Moment #2785, and their performance at the Mohawk was true to that preview. They sounded very much like a female-fronted version of Nirvana, but it must be said that frontwoman Alica Bognanno’s distinctive vocals add an interesting flavour to that swampy, heavily distorted sound. It’s a little hard to believe that music like this is coming out of Nashville, the country music capital of the world, but not at all hard to see why Bully are signed to Sub Pop, Nirvana’s former label.

Wye Oak internal

Both the mood and the lighting at the Mohawk changed for Baltimore’s Wye Oak, who took the stage next. Frontwoman Jenn Wassner immediately announced that things were about to get “vibe-y”, and she delivered on that promise with a set full of new songs from the band’s forthcoming LP ‘The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs’. Wassner confessed that this was the first time the band had played them live, as well as the first time they’d performed as a trio (the typical duo is comprised of Wassner and drummer Andy Stack). Dreamy and atmospheric, but with a distinct rhythmic quality, the new tracks made a positive impression on the fans in Austin. ‘The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs’ is due for release on the 6th of April via Merge Records; listen to the title track just below.

It’s no coincidence that Wye Oak played just ahead of the final act of the night, veteran North Carolina rock band Superchunk (pictured at top), whose members Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan founded Merge Records back in 1989. Superchunk, touring here with bassist Jason Narducy in Ballance’s place, released their 11th studio album ‘What a Time to Be Alive’ earlier this year.

Having never before listened to Superchunk, I wasn’t sure what to expect from them, but they clearly had a good number of enthusiastic fans in the Mohawk crowd. The unapologetically political themes in Superchunk’s new songs were no affront to those long-time listeners, but the energy in the venue ramped up exponentially when the band played their older favourites, especially set closer ‘Slack Motherfucker.’ Despite their longevity in the music business, Superchunk’s career has been anything but slack in recent years, as evidenced by the driving energy of eponymous album track ‘What a Time to Be Alive’ and the delight of their fans in Austin late on the SXSW Monday night.

 
 
 

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF was edited by Mary Chang, based in Washington, DC.

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