By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
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By Mike Appelstein
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By Kelsey McClure
It's hard to believe that SXSW — the annual music-industry spring break in Austin, Texas — is upon us once more. Like last year, St. Louis is sending several worthy representatives to the festival, which takes place from March 18 to 22. Here are some of the acts repping for the Lou.
Magnolia Summer: Vocalist/songwriter Chris Grabau recorded Magnolia Summer's 2008 release, Lines from the Frame, at Sawhorse Studios with Jason McEntire. Supporting him are long-time collaborators John Horton (guitar), Greg Lamb (bass) and John Baldus (drums). Joe Thebeau of Finn's Motel co-produced and lent backing vocals. Sonically, Frame is crystal-clear and dynamic. Grabau's keening, wistful vocals mesh well with mournful violin from Kevin Buckley and the occasional curl of pedal steel. The music ranges from slow-burning alt-country (the Whiskeytown-esque "Like Setting Suns") to pensive ballads ("Birds Without a Wire," a gossamer duet with Glossary's Kelly Kneiser) and gnarled, loud rockers (the wiry "Wrong Chords"). "By Your Side" is a Wilco-like track on which strings explode like a sunrise by the end. The jaunty jangle and springy cowbell of "Pulling Phase to Ground" recall the rowdiest moments of R.E.M.'s Life's Rich Pageant.
John Henry & the Engine: On its 2008 LP, Under the Yellow Moon, it's unclear if John Henry & the Engine send us their greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, or Columbia, Missouri. The quartet is so steeped in Springsteenisms — piano-led epics, small-town heartbreaks and a heavy reliance on American rock & soul — that it sometimes feels that a Clarence Clemons sax solo is hiding behind every corner. Of course, you could pick worse songwriters than Bruce to mimic, and lead singer and guitarist John Henry brings enough of his own verve and style to keep him from sounding like a tribute act. His voice works its ragged, out-of-breath charm across these ten tracks, moving from bluesy, drawn-out stompers like opening cut "Lightning City Blues" to full-on barnburners like "Sweetness Wind."
Theodore: The local quartet Theodore excels at writing heart-rending folk songs and deconstructing them to their breaking points. Last year's Songs for the Weary introduced the band members as musicians adept at swapping instruments and genres, while their live shows meld austere acoustic strains and peals of electric feedback. The origins of Theodore's second album, Defeated, TN, are the stuff of legend: Its lyrics are based on letters found in an abandoned house. "Reading it, it was some of the most intensely moving things, written mostly from a husband and father to his wife and kids, mostly from jail," says vocalist Justin Kinkel-Schuster. "It was like, 'What are the odds?' It was pretty incredible. I think we were pretty stunned for a while — we couldn't believe what we found. It was just a treasure trove of human misery and suffering that had been poured out and forgotten. It was like reading real-life country songs." (CS)
The Pragmatic: By day, André Anjos reworks tunes under the umbrella of the Remix Artist Collective (RAC); recent artists he's worked on remixes for have included Lady Gaga, Kings of Leon, Robyn and even U2. But by night, he's in electro project the Pragmatic. Fans of Daft Punk's smooth funk, retro-new-wave synthpop and authentic, analog sounds — as well as dreamy laptop-pop acts such as the Postal Service — will dig the band's tunes. (AZ)
Living Things: Although the brothers Berlin (née Rothman) still consider St. Louis their home base, the trio spent a good chunk of time recording its new record at Berlin's Hansa Ton Studios. The ghosts of Bowie and Iggy (both of whom recorded at Hansa) don't overwhelm the resulting LP, Habeas Corpus. But the influence of some other famous siblings — namely the Reid brothers of the Jesus and Mary Chain — along with the storm clouds of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, do permeate Corpus. Fuzzy distortion, bruised glam chords and ominous lyrics abound. (AZ)
Teresajenee: R&B/soul upstart Teresajenee has a voice as sweet as honey and an impressive debut EP, The Eclectic: Volume One, to match. Perhaps because of her family history — Dad's a preacher and Mom was a soul singer in the '70s — Jenee can do soulful and playful with ease. Eclectic's standout is "Break My Heart," an aerobic slice of '80s-influenced soul with sassy production quirks that wouldn't sound out of place on a mixtape between Laura Branigan and Gloria Gaynor. (AZ)
Also playing: A Friday day party will feature the crème de la crème of St. Louis hip-hop: Rockwell Knuckles, Nato Caliph and Black Spade will be performing, while DJ Trackstar mans the decks. Trad-rockers Via Dove will play the RedGorilla Music Festival on Saturday afternoon. (AZ)