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Grudge matches

Which side will you take in these ACL head-to-headers?

Staff Writer
Austin 360
At 6 p.m. Sunday, at opposite ends of Zilker Park, the Band of Horses, left, will vie for festival-goers' time with 'mad scientist' Wayne Coyne's Flaming Lips, right.

Austin music fans are no strangers to King Solomon-like decisions; when are there not two great shows at the same time? ACL Fest is no exception. Our writers throw down on some of this weekend's key conflicts, making the case for the bands they think you should choose.

Sonic Youth vs. Vampire Weekend (7 p.m. Friday)

Sonic Youth: The cancellation of Sonic Youth was one of the biggest disappointments of the 2009 festival. They had just released ‘The Eternal,' their first album on an independent label since they jumped to DGC/Geffen/Universal in 1990. Over the years, they have become a remarkably consistent live band with a monster back catalog of songs that defined American independent rock: The epic ‘Teenage Riot,' the monster guitar jam ‘Expressway to Your Skull,' the gorgeous ‘Kotton Krown' are stone classics of trippy feedback and guitar fury. From the DGC years, I'm rooting for ‘Dirty Boots,' ‘Bull in the Heather,' ‘Karen Revisited,' ‘Peace Attack' and ‘Incinerate.' That's a monster set right there. For radical adults and other punks at heart. — Joe Gross

Vampire Weekend: When Vampire Weekend strode into SXSW 2008 surrounded by a swarm of buzzing bloggers, the collective swoon from the skinny-jean set was so off-putting I never gave the band a fair listen. White kids from NYC playing allegedly amazing Afropop indie rock? Whatever. But with a dearth of diversity in this year's ACL lineup, I decided to give this band's self-described ‘Upper East Side Soweto' sound a shake. To my surprise, the smug hipstery vibe I expected was absent. Instead I found myself utterly charmed.

The obvious ‘if you like' comparison for Vampire Weekend (particularly their 2010 album ‘Contra') is the album that introduced the Soweto sound to the Western world, Paul Simon's ‘Graceland.' But while Simon set his own music against the backdrop of the amazing vocal textures and irresistible rhythms of South African powerhouse Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Vampire Weekend takes a more millennial approach. The band incorporates elements of Afropop, a guitar cadence here, a polyrhythmic vocal pattern there, into a thoroughly intriguing mashup of modern sounds. From the cheeky samples of both MIA and Toots and the Maytals in ‘Diplomat's Son' to the cascading keyboards and sly insightful lyricism of ‘Taxi Cab,' it's a sound that's both respectfully derivative and refreshingly unique. So, you could take a nostalgia trip back to the '90s with Sonic Youth, or you could take a sonic journey through the here and now with a band that truly embodies the spirit of the post-Internet world. An easy choice. — Deborah Sengupta Stith

Lucero vs. Gaslight Anthem (2:30 p.m. Saturday)

Lucero: A year ago this would've been an easy pick for Gaslight Anthem when I was heavily under the spell of their 2008 knockout ‘The ‘59 Sound.' But two things happened since then: I've seen Lucero's Ben Nichols in his drunken growling glory twice and left with a smile plastered on my face, and Gaslight Anthem released ‘American Slang,' which left me unmoved. So I've switched sides, with my only concern being Nichols' likely hangover from opening up for Robert Earl Keen the night before. Still, that guy's impervious to booze and will probably play better because of it. — Chad Swiatecki

Gaslight Anthem: In this battle of T-shirts and tats, I'm going with Gaslight Anthem's New Jersey scowl over Lucero's Tennessee drawl, post-punk over cowpunk, drivin' and dyin' over drivin' and cryin.' The Gaslight Anthem, a buzz band if ever there was one, is where melody meets moshpit and where even an old rocker like Bruce Springsteen can hear his lyrical signatures (rivers and redemption, cars and guitars, Mary and Maria) echoed to another generation. Gaslight followed 2008's breakthrough ‘The '59 Sound' this summer with some soulful songs that truly embrace a '59 sound, morphing into what the Replacements might've been if Paul Westerberg listened to Sam Cooke (and if the rest of the Mats could actually play their instruments). Those looking to go anthemic at ACL need search no further than a band with Anthem for a last name. — John Bridges

Silversun Pickups vs. Broken Bells (4:30 p.m. Saturday)

Silversun Pickups: In July I felt invigorated after seeing Silversun Pickups at Stubb's, hearing a truly gifted band fold waves of feedback into its tight rock songs, and disappointed that Austin's noise ordinance cut the band's set to barely over an hour. So you'd think I'd shy away from seeing them handcuffed by a shorter time limit, but there's just something about their way with noise and fuzz that hits my sweet spot. Afterward I'll have wanted more, but that craving will still be more moving than the sluggish indie-pop-hop Frankenstein's monster James Mercer and Danger Mouse will be peddling across the way. – Chad Swiatecki

Broken Bells: An easy personal highlight of my South by Southwest Music Festival experience was the sight of a few dozen people clinging desperately to the chain-link fence wrapped around a parking garage across the street from Stubb's, hoping to get a glimpse of Broken Bells' very full AOL Spinner day show. Reviews for the band's festival performances were all over the map, but that kind of rapturous reception speaks for itself — even the underwhelmed can't deny that there are a lot of fetching hooks and well-crafted pop instincts underlying this unlikely team-up between the Shins' James Mercer and beloved producer Danger Mouse. Any band that snags ‘Mad Men' uber-babe Christina Hendricks for its music video (for the electronic wash of ‘The Ghost Inside') is doing something right.— Patrick Caldwell

The XX vs. The Temper Trap (5:30 p.m. Saturday)

The XX: With a slightly gothy, post-punk sound that never uses two notes when one will do, these three kids made an intimate album of lovely, minimalist rock music. They eschewed large sounds in favor of guitar blips, beats on drum pads and bass thuds. They filled in some of the gaps with lyrics that revealed intriguingly intimate mysteries the more you listened. Then they won the 2010 Mercury Prize for Album of the Year, one of the biggest honors in British music. The weird thing, as everyone who saw them at South by Southwest knows, this worked amazingly well live. They stood still and looked nervous and you got sucked into their world. This is the one set at ACL where a little rain might help. — Joe Gross

The Temper Trap: Sure, the XX make a cool cocktail that's three parts Portishead-descended trip-hop to one part soulful R&B, and their atmospheric, eponymous debut LP is a fine musical nightcap. But what plays brilliantly in the headphones at 3 a.m. plays less impressively in-person in the middle of the day. The XX are the kind of act suited for playing small, dimly lit clubs — in the harsh light of the day, they're three disconcertingly stationary British kids. The Temper Trap's towering pop rock, on the other hand, has pristine harmonies, hooks like TV On the Radio's more popular and less eccentric cousin and some very propulsive percussion. Are they the better band? Probably not, but they'll put on a better show for your buck. — Patrick Caldwell

Richard Thompson vs. the National (7 p.m. Sunday)

Richard Thompson: Thompson has been one of the great rock ‘n' roll guitarists since he was too young to vote, a mere teenager when he helped invent British folk rock with Fairport Convention in the late 1960s. And he's never stopped. After a run of brilliant records with his wife, Linda, he made 18 more years of solo albums and kept a touring schedule (both with backing bands and on his own) that might impress Dylan. This year, Thompson released the excellent ‘Dream Attic,' new songs recorded live on stage, a terrific outlet for this guitar pyrotechnics. I have never seen him put on a bad show, period. — Joe Gross

The National: The National are something of a rarity in the Brooklyn indie rock world — a band made up of adults who sing chiefly about adult things. In that resigned, vulnerable baritone of his, front man Matt Berninger grapples with the financial and emotional burdens of being a grown-up, pathos that has never been more evident than on this year's ‘High Violet.' A widescreen stunner with more than 20 guest musicians, it's by turns triumphant and broken, bleak and booming. Nobody's better at making the stormy and angst-ridden sound strangely warm and cozy — in other words, a perfect vibe for the dark, waning hours of the festival, and stiff competition for Thompson's similarly humanist folk rock.— Patrick Caldwell

The Eagles vs. going home (8 p.m. Sunday)

Going home: So you're tired, you might be damp or sunburned and it's entirely possible you've been drinking for three days straight. You've eaten a chicken cone, some barbecue and a burger. You've seen a ton of music, and Richard Thompson has just finished a set. You're left with ... the Eagles. Somewhere there is a restaurant that is not yet full or a bar that is not yet jammed. A legion of buzzed drivers is not yet on the road. The alternative? ... The Eagles. You've had a lovely weekend full of smart, relevant music that speaks to the human condition in 2010. I, for one, will not be closing it out with the center line down the middle of the road with a band that embodied everything a couple of generations of rockers rolled their eyes at. As for me and my house, we will not be exposing ourselves to ‘Hotel California' and ‘Take It Easy.' We will be going home. — Joe Gross

The Eagles: The announcement of the Eagles as Sunday night's headliner was greeted in the musical blogosphere with an avalanche of kvetching, a million-music snob reenactment of the drugged Jeffrey ‘The Dude' Lebowski in the back of a taxi cab: ‘I (expletive) hate the (expletive) Eagles, man.' But come on, if you've already dropped the $185 it would be tantamount to lunacy not to check out the hit-spawning country-rock quartet. Sad is the person who lacks at least some residual love for ‘On the Border' or ‘Hotel California.' So enjoy it genuinely or enjoy it ironically — the Eagles are long overdue for a Hall and Oates-style hipster resurgence — because the set is likely to be a solid collection of the hits from a band that had a staggering number of them. — Patrick Caldwell

Flaming Lips vs. Band of Horses (6 p.m. Sunday)

Flaming Lips:There's probably not a contemporary band more quintessentially suited for festivals than the Flaming Lips — stick them in a place like the Austin Music Hall, which they handily sold out back in March, and they practically seem cramped. Wayne Coyne and company are mad scientists who brew up absurdist psychedelic spectacles loaded with confetti, light shows, costumes, dancers, disco balls the size of Winnebagos and, of course, Coyne's trademark plastic bubble. Pair that with the band's sweeping, experimental music and you have the kind of live show that's tailor-made for an outdoor performance under an open sky. Band of Horses will be good — great, even — but they won't give you an experience quite like the Flaming Lips. Short of taking psychoactive drugs, it's as wild as your weekend will get.

— Patrick Caldwell

Band of Horses: Although Wayne County, er Coyne, can be quite the trans-visual silver fox, do you realize the Lips don't pucker up to substance? Their sweetly hummable songs all sound pretty much the same to moi. Led by the unpretentiously focused and exquisitely soaring Ben Bridwell, South Carolina's Horses, meanwhile, make sweeping records with bite. "The Funeral" just might give Sunday its musical liftoff and their latest album, "Infinite Arms," is clunker-free, which bodes well for the rest of the setlist. No plastic bubbles or "Beetlejuice" makeup necessary. (Full disclosure: I've hated Oklahoma's Flaming Lips since they opened for the Butthole Surfers in the late '80s and made me wait.) — Michael Corcoran