8:47 AM CDT, March 15, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas -- During a short but ravishing set by Indians -- the band/project helmed by Danish singer and multi-instrumentalist Soren Lokke Juul -- the question had to be asked: Is it the setting or the artist?
I've seen so many powerful performances at the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street over the years at the South by Southwest Music Conference that it's almost expected: St. Vincent, Tune-Yards, Rhys Chatham. Add Indians to the list Thursday. Juul's first performance as Indians in his native Denmark occurred at a church about a year ago, and so he clearly felt right at home. With an array of keyboards and electronics -- and the occasional acoustic guitar -- he didn't just play the instruments with his two accompanists, he played the room to enhance and embellish arrangements already thick with atmosphere.
"Haunted" in particular drifted inland like a thick Nordic mist, its melody underpinned by wordless vocals. Juul treats the human voice like a sound effect. Churches were in part designed to give voices lifted in song an almost otherworldly dimension, projecting them toward the heavens. No wonder Juul's music feels so right in them.
Later Thursday at a slightly more mundane club, Michael Benjamin Lerner debuted new material from his Seattle band Telekinesis. Lerner has retooled his band -- with Wild Flag's Rebecca Cole among the new additions on keyboards, percussion and all-around backing-vocal enthusiasm -- and his set crackled with energy and strong new melodies. Blending power-pop, garage rock and soul, Telekinesis soared, as Lerner sang, played drums and traded smiles with his pogoing bandmates. The drummer also scored bonus points for rhyming "party dress" with "house arrest."
Unfortunately, a similar blend of styles worked considerably less well for Pickwick, a bar band big on soul signifiers: raspy, falsetto vocals and "Blues Brothers" revue get-down moves. But the rhythm section didn't swing, and neither did the songs.
A late-night set by hip-hop MC Angel Haze was sparsely attended, despite mountains of hype from on-line enthusiasts and critics. The Brooklyn-via-Detroit artist traded rapid-fire chest-thumping with more vulnerable insights over sparse tracks. She seemed to be just getting started when her 13-minute abruptly ended.