SXSWow: In the weeks leading up to and after SXSW, St. Louis draws some of music's biggest talents to town. This year is no exception.

Andrew Bird is one hell of a whistler. He takes the relatively simple act of passing air between pursed lips and turns it into a sweeping, tremulous instrument. His whistles lend his songs an airy, lightweight grace and serve as his sonic calling card. But if whistling were Bird's greatest skill, his many fans would quickly tire of the quirk. Instead, he's built a following for his musicianship — which employs both classical techniques and experimental bravery — and his always verbose (and often absurd) lyrical wordplay.

Trained from an early age on the violin but equally adept at the guitar and glockenspiel (all of which he furiously juggles during live performances), Bird builds songs from melodic loops and straightforward folk-rock rhythms. A typical song will employ several harmonic lines that dip, dive and eventually converge, while his lyrics match the music more in the mellifluousness of sound than through storytelling or emotional transmission. Those looking for deep truths in his words will either be disappointed or forced to create their own meaning.

Bird has long been a star of the underground, but his profile continues to rise with each release. Although jazz and swing music from the 1920s influenced his early work, the one-two punch of 2003's Weather Systems and 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs introduced Bird as a songwriter capable of pop genius amid serpentine arrangements. This year's Noble Beast uses a grander orchestral palette and a greater use of sonic white space while continuing his progression toward indie-rock accessibility.

Ra Ra Riot
Doron Gild
Ra Ra Riot
Andrew Bird
Cameron Wittig
Andrew Bird

His manner of composing songs may verge on the scientific, but his lust for the off-kilter and outré hasn't been sacrificed as he inches toward the mainstream: Special editions of Beast came paired with the disc Useless Creatures, a series of instrumental pieces performed with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and upright bassist Todd Sickafoose. — Christian Schaeffer
8 p.m. Sunday, March 15. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $22 advance, $25 day of show. 314-726-6161.

Alexandra Lawn always knew that she wanted to be a cellist when she grew up. The Ra Ra Riot member started playing the instrument at the age of three — "My father couldn't stand the sound of little tiny violins," she laughs. "The little tiny cello was the lesser of two evils"— and idolized Shostakovich, Yo-Yo Ma and her cello teacher. Naturally, joining a rock band wasn't quite on her agenda.

"Honestly, learning more about rock music," Lawn says, when asked what the biggest adjustment was upon joining Ra Ra Riot, which formed at Syracuse University in 2006. "Going to college obviously helped that. I wasn't totally out of the loop; I listened to Top 40 on the radio. Bands that people listened to in high school — like Zeppelin. But the biggest adjustment was just opening my eyes and learning what tasteful rock is and what good old music there is out there."

That sense of discovery permeates Ra Ra Riot's music, as does a childlike innocence and a hyperactive stage presence. Still, these elements mask a young band familiar with great heartache and turmoil: In June of 2007, drummer John Pike allegedly drowned after a show.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pike's spirit hangs over much of The Rhumb Line, Ra Ra Riot's debut full-length for Barsuk Records; he wrote or co-wrote half of the songs. But Line is a celebration rather than a eulogy, an optimistic album that features sophisticated strings, rubbery basslines and Wes Miles' wide-eyed, soulful vocals. Undulating beats drive standout "Oh, La" — a comforting, Death Cab-like rocker that preaches the power of two: "We've got a lot to learn from each other/We have got to stick together" — while the group's lovely cover of Kate Bush's "Suspended in Gaffa" sounds like a virginal DeVotchKa.

"She's definitely a favorite of the band," Lawn says of Bush. "She's a huge inspiration to many of us. We cover 'Hounds of Love,' but 'Suspended in Gaffa'...the summer of 2007, [that song was] all on our mix CDs and stuff. And one day we sat down and all started playing it, and it was so much fun to play that it ended up on the album." — Annie Zaleski
9 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. The Billiken Club, in the Busch Student Center on the campus of Saint Louis University, 20 North Grand Boulevard. Free.

Few bands do a better job of capturing the eerie surrealism of 21st-century life than Handsome Furs. The husband-wife duo creates music that comes from an outside observer's standpoint, where each song is something of a foreign correspondent's small commentary or status report on the nature of things on the ground. Songs address the effects of socio-political issues and the personal loneliness that persists, even though we're all constantly connected and under surveillance.

These post-modern observations comprise the themes of Handsome Furs' new album, Face Control. Minimalist drum-machine pulses, droning synth robotics, and gritty guitar yelps and squalls serve as the perfect sonic landscape for this type of relevant commentary. "When you tour, you end up finding a kinship with people and places you wouldn't have necessarily expected," says drum-machinist/keyboardist Alexei Perry. "Sometimes the writing stems from conversations we've had with people we've met, and sometimes it stems from wanting to have a dialogue with people that are living in some of the countries we're playing in who have no idea who we are."

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