It’s rare that any piece of music at South By Southwest inspires true vitriol, as the days are so dense with opportunity that a bit of material that rubs the wrong way can easily be replaced by something more pleasant at the venue next door. Plenty of acts who come through SXSW are no good, but they fail in perfectly bland ways—their greatest crime is making no impact at all.
But occasionally I find myself transfixed by something so undeniably terrible that I can’t help but hang around and let the badness sink in. It’s possible that ascendant British indie pop combo Years & Years are not the worst band at SXSW, but they’re certainly the worst thing I’ve seen in a long time. After an endless stream of technical difficulties that delayed their set by nearly an hour, they unleashed their horror on the gathered crowd at the Cedar Door for Palladia’s Epic Awesome Showcase. (In case it’s not in your cable guide, Palladia is a Viacom network that airs live music almost exclusively—like the cool older sibling of MTV and VH1 who owns a crazy-amazing bootleg collection.) While there’s a ton of contemporary-sounding beat science in the mix, Years & Years clearest antecedent is the overwrought froth of ‘80s New Wave. They take rudimentary dance tracks and slather on gooey keyboard frosting and frontman Olly Alexander’s rancid falsetto. They’re like Haircut 100 as remixed by the Pet Shop Boys, yet somehow even more craven than that description makes it sound. Their songs are simultaneously forgettable and punishing, rehashing the same synth tricks used by bands far more talented than they are. Years & Years represents the nadir of the indie-leaning electro-pop movement, a trend that is officially eating its tail. The band will be playing roughly four thousand more sets over the next few days, and I’m going to do my best to keep them at a safe distance. You should do the same.
(And now watch them become a massive crossover success, something that may already be happening: “King” has already gone to the top of the UK singles chart. I’ve been wrong before.)
With that unpleasantness out of the way, it’s time to focus on some true revolutionaries, each of whom come from vastly different walks of life but who played back to back at the House of Vans to create a powerful two hours of sonic pleasure. In one corner was Courtney Barnett, an Australian singer-songwriter with an itchy shredding finger and a mastery of rambling storytelling. I was not sold on her series of EPs, as it sounded like her skills as a crafter of lyrics and melodies had not yet caught up to her admittedly intimidating fretwork. But something clicks on her forthcoming full-length Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, and her live performance drove that home. In between bursts of manic six-string energy and the rolling hooks of new tunes like “Debbie Downer,” Barnett both cajoled the crowd and established her dominance as an artist coming into her own in real time (and, with any luck, blowing up in short order). I don’t toss this around lightly, but Barnett does a lot that reminds me of the late Kurt Cobain—not just because they both play guitar left-handed, but because they both use a unique voice to express a particularly dark, often absurd worldview, and they both understand the power that guitar noise can have if it is harnessed correctly.
Rae Sremmurd followed Barnett at the House of Vans, and while it’s hard to predict what the future might hold for Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee, but they certainly have complete command of the present. Their debut album SremmLife is a spectacularly foul-mouthed, guttural ode to every base thought on the mind of a young man, and they get by with the power of their sing-songy delivery. Though they were often merely rapping along with the tracks from the album, that did not diminish the power of the singles “No Flex Zone” and “No Type.” But even if people didn’t just love shouting along to the phrase “Bad b—-es is the only thing that I like” (and believe me, they absolutely do), Jimmy and Swae would still have had a packed house eating from their hands. They stalked the stage like pros, traded rhymes with power and energy, and even brought up producer/label head/mentor Mike Will Made It to bounce around at the end of the set. There was enough chaos to make it feel dangerous, but also just the right amount of cartoonish lunacy, which came in the form of two giant cut-outs of the Rae Sremmurd boys’ heads. Jimmy and Swae are still developing, which is satisfyingly alarming.
The rest of Wednesday was a mixed bag full of the aforementioned totally acceptable indie. Twin Peaks put a literate spin on blue collar punk, but they still seem one or two stylistic moves away from putting it all together. (“Flavor” is a banger, though.) Elle King had a hot set at the Palladia show and proved she can jump between genres with the greatest of ease, but she’s far better off delivering country-kissed sneers like “Ex’s & Oh’s” than she is conjuring up tepid Zeppelin poses. Seinabo Sey, who also appeared at Palladia, has a remarkable voice but needs to find some producers who know what to do with it. Still, she’s incredibly arresting, which is the opposite problem that Fader Fort participant Kap G had: He’s got one incredible song in “Tatted Like Amigos,” but Kap himself is a charisma-free MC who might as well have blended into the background during his time on stage.
The day ended on a high note with Waxahatchee, who held the penultimate spot at the Jansport Bonfire Sessions at Cheer Up Charlie’s. Leader Katie Crutchfield constructs songs that represent the missing connective tissue between Sleater-Kinney and Letters to Cleo, and her sharp riffs and deceptively sugary melodies were the perfect send-off to a day of sometimes confounding but ultimately thrilling extremes.