Austin acts that have 'It': Ume, Da'Shade Moonbeam, Quiet Company, Crooks, Marmalakes
Live performances bolster Austin bands with the talent and charisma to draw widespread attention
‘It" hits you right away, even though pretty much no one can verbalize exactly what "It" is. It's just a matter of seeing a band so fully formed and in control of their art from start to finish that believers quickly materialize and a sort of cosmic pact is created; that if things break an artist's way even one-tenth of the time, deserved success on a significant scale can't be far off. We've seen a spike in "It" around Austin recently, which is what prompted a look at some of the acts making things happen right now.
In a city that breathes music, picking out a select few from the thousands can admittedly be folly, but have a listen or see a show by any of the acts we look at here and the "It" becomes pretty undeniable. Through a combination of delivering on long-awaited albums, ambitious live projects or finding new ways to matter in a crowded entertainment marketplace, at this very moment these acts are setting themselves far apart from their peers and keeping us searching for more "It" on stages all over Austin.
The moment came in February. It's cruelly appropriate that after slipping on some ice and fracturing her right elbow, Lauren Larson's sling-bound arm was in the right position to play guitar, which is what she did with husband/bassist Eric Larson and new drummer Rachel Fuhrer, sitting down to record a live session with the Daytrotter music site.
"My arm was so messed up I couldn't brush my hair, but I could still play," Larson said. "It was our first time really playing with Rachel, and there was this energy we all had that we'd been really looking for for a long time. That was when it felt like a new beginning and that we were going to live up to the dream we've always had for this band."
See Ume in concert and it quickly becomes obvious why even a freak accident couldn't sideline Larson's chops, and why their long-in-coming debut LP "Phantoms" (out Tuesday on Modern Outsider Records) is one of the more anticipated releases in a long time by an Austin band that hasn't broken huge in some other part of the world. An Ume concert is an exercise in musical ferocity that's somehow accessible, with Larson coaxing layers of fuzzy riffs from her instrument while her long blond hair flails about. Sonic Youth is an obvious musical influence, and if the Breeders were more of a punk band it'd sound a lot like Ume (pronounced "oo-may").
What "Phantoms" does is take all that fury and lay it on wax with lots of moody atmospherics, keyboards and lyrical vulnerability that gets sacrificed in the abandon of the band's live shows.
While it sounds how an until-now purely hypothetical/conceptual/fairy-tale Ume record obviously should — powerful but not blunt, haunting but never gloomy — Larson said making "Phantoms" was a struggle that ground her band's gears down at several points, leaving them temporarily broke as they moved through six different studios trying to complete it.
"At every turn there were problems, tape machines that broke in studios, all sorts of other technical problems, our van kept breaking down and cost us $10,000, and eventually we just ran out of money," she said. "Some of it was too dark and there's a lot more vulnerability than what you heard on (2009's EP) ‘Sunshowers.'"
Stepping in to lend a financial hand and help finally make "Phantoms" a reality was Modern Outsider Records, a new Austin-based label owned by music industry and marketing vets Chip and Erin Adams. They won the confidence of a band that stayed proudly do-it-yourself in the face of management and label offers that came flying from all over as soon as "Sunshowers" was released. The deal with Modern Outsider lets the band keep possession of its publishing and masters, with the label licensing the music and physical product for distribution.
"They were very into the business side of their career and doing things the right way, which is what we're all about and I think we all met at the right time for each other," Chip Adams said.
Asked what it is about the band that drew loyal fans and industry types almost immediately, Adams said it all began on stage.
"It's hard to pinpoint, but when you watch Lauren you can't help but be in awe of her guitar abilities, and she leaves a lasting impression on you," he said. "And then even when they blow the doors off a venue, they're these sweet, genuine people creating all this chaos up on stage."
That chaos won't relent anytime soon. This weekend Ume plays in New Braunfels as part of the Dia De Los Toadies festival and immediately heads to St. Louis for another date in a string that won't end before 2011 does. "Phantoms" finally drops on Tuesday and Larson says it'll be followed up by an EP that will be its first recordings with Fuhrer.
"We've been waiting so long to get this record out, and we hope that people embrace it because we had to put so much of ourselves into it to finally make it happen," she said. "At the same time this isn't the end, it's just one more step in the climb."
(Ume play Saturday at the Dia De Los Toadies festival, which is Friday and Saturday in New Braunfels. Details/tickets: thetoadies.com .)
Why: Because the longtime member of the socially conscious Austin rap crew Blacklisted Individuals is setting out solo to redefine the hip-hop live set, using theater, video, poetry, dance and more to immerse crowds in a complete creative environment. "I want it to feel like you're at a movie, to put the focus on theatrics, the crowd, the dancers, the DJ and go as far as people feel comfortable, and then keep on going," said the man born Jeffery Johnson, who also runs Cry Havoc Action Choreography and pays the bills as a social worker. "I like someone like Janelle Monae, who is known as a pure artist the same way Andy Warhol was." If Johnson's ambitions sound lofty, check the YouTube clip of his "Let This Be the Beginning" from South by Southwest and feel the hair on your neck stand up.
What's Next: A performance Saturday at the Emerge Grafitti Art Show at Pine Street Station (otherwise known as the Fader Fort location) and lots of time recording, with plans to self-release a four- or five-song EP every other month. (www.dashade.com .)
Why: Because in Townes' town, where for a lot of years there was country and "everything else," Crooks aren't a throwback so much as a study in some of the best parts of traditional western American music — two-step, tear-in-beer laments, spaghetti western dustups — distilled into sharp, crowd-herding 40-minute sets. "We can play some rock for the Red River crowd, and then gradually expose them to the more country stuff," said multi-instrumentalist Sam Alberts, whose trumpet talents tend to draw lots of looks. "We love being the odd ones out, being the country band that can appeal to non-country fans because we are so odd."
What's next: Twice-monthly shows around town through the fall, including Sept. 15 at Beauty Bar, Sept. 22 at the Continental Club and Fun Fun Fun Fest in November, with all other time devoted to recording a new full-length with local uber-producer Danny Reich that'll feature accordion from the Texas Tornados' Flaco Jimenez. (www.crookscountry.com ).
Why: Because it'd be hard to find a band out there that uses social media as adeptly as this pop-rock quintet. Going heavy on Twitter in the early days — "For a while we didn't know what Twitter really did," main songwriter Taylor Glen Muse said — and experimenting with new platforms and tactics all the time, the band orchestrates giveaways, publicity campaigns and keeps a robust conversation happening with fans. "The days of bands being untouchable and mysterious, those are gone, so we try to be accessible in a way people can appreciate."
What's next: Quiet Company will mark an already high-water year of tours with the Toadies and Bob Schneider with this weekend's Dia De Los Toadies festival in New Braunfels (thetoadies.com ), and two nights of performances (Sept. 29-30) at The ND to mark the release of the new "We Are All Where We Belong." (quietcompanymusic.com )
Why: Because youthful exuberance is still good for something, as this shaggy, vaguely Vampire Weekend/early R.E.M. indie pop trio (all 22 or younger) show every time they take the stage. Crowds got way thicker after the release of last year's "Wonder Winds" EP, to the point that lead singer/guitarist Chase Weinacht had to figure out ways to get out of his own head and settle nerves before getting on stage. "Our Free Week show (at Mohawk) was so crazy and massive, I had to go for a walk for 20 minutes before we played, to get out of that room because it was so intense," he said.
What's next: Another Mohawk show this Saturday (with Mother Falcon) and the fall release of another EP ("Even Clothed") that Weinacht describes as "more patient" and moodier than past work. (marmalakes.com )