Icona Pop, before the band refused to play without its bass. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles…)
AUSTIN, Texas -- Early Tuesday night, the first full night of music showcases at the South by Southwest conference, a young rapper had a confession to make. "I've never been on a stage before," said 5-foot rapper Sirah. "I'm not crazy about that light."
She either has a short memory or is exaggerating. The petite artist, known to much of the pop world for her collaboration with Skrillex on his "Bangarang," has been spotted around the L.A. scene for a few years now and is here in Austin as a new member of the Warner Music Group family. She was first up at the major's week of showcases, a hyper-aggressive force of energy if not polish.
Yet even in a 20-minute set, it was no wonder why Skrillex took a liking to her. With live rhythms and a techno pop gleam, Sirah mainly rapped but also did a little singing, and was most comfortable when she was off the stage and playfully ad-libbing with the crowd. She was a frontwoman who was eager to downplay her role as band-leader and instead embraced the face-in-the-crowd vibe of dance music.
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Where she'll go from here is relatively wide-open, and the set didn't offer a major hint. "Up & Down" saw Sirah justifying her major label deal -- rapping about her inability to pay for her medications -- but swelled to a shout-along chorus. "Like Me Now" had more bile and was the most combative song of the set. Though it lacked a pop arrangement, it allowed Sirah to seemingly have more fun as she distorted her voice to cartoonish proportions.
But if it was polish you were looking for, following Sirah was Charli XCX. Her synth pop went down easy, especially "Lock You Up," which played out like a slowed-down, keyboard-soaked take on "Manic Monday." The writer and featured artist on Icona Pop's "I Love It," Charli XCX's synth-pop is groomed for stardom, although it's still unclear whether it can resonate outside the dance floor.
The surprise of the night, and certainly the most dynamic electronic music heard by this reporter Tuesday, was Azari & III, who performed at a Pitchfork showcase late in the night. The Canadian four-piece ground their songs in vintage Chicago house and techno -- the influence of Green Velvet was apparent in the grooves from the get-go -- but it's the dual frontmen of Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full that clearly own the stage.
Sliding from microphone stand to microphone stand -- or twisting and twirling in time -- the two were smoothly appropriating the kind of old-fashioned dance moves currently favored by Justin Timberlake. Their voices -- sometimes a falsetto, sometimes a harmony -- dug deep into the beats and seemed at times to want to pull the songs into more funky, R&B directions, but DJs Dinamo Azari and Alixander III keep it swift.
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The act went past its allotted time, and soundmen at the Mohawk even had to turn on the lights. Yet that didn't stop the dance so much as egg it on, as Helder and Yet Full used the flip of the light switch to flip their hats and get the audience to clap. Then they sang another song. Their vocals weren't always audible amid the synths, but the fun was apparent even without knowing the words.
That's how the evening looked to continue when Icona Pop took the stage. Playing their second showcase of the night -- the Swedish duo of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo had earlier performed at the Warner Music showcase -- things got off to a sugary good time with "Good for You," which updates ABBA for the dub-step generation.
Yet a couple songs later and before the set could fully take off, the sound system started acting up and the bass disappeared. Then the act committed perhaps the gravest of SXSW sins, as those looking for a decent sound system will have a hard time finding it in Austin this week.
"We're so much better with the bass," said Jawo, who stopped the start of another song. The crowd tried to convince the duo otherwise. "Just sing," yelled one crowd member, and another voice from the back shouted, "We don't care about the bass!"
When Hjelt went to invite the crowd to the next show, a few audience members tried to get a chant started. "No next show!" Then when it became apparent that Icona Pop were definitely not going to play, the boos started. A few stragglers hung for photos with the act, who obliged, but the damage was done, the facade destroyed.
There were sound troubles, yes, but there was, in fact, sound. The microphones worked, and at least one and a half of the synthesizers appeared to be in tip-top audio shape. Icona Pop was no doubt correct in arguing that the songs would sound better with the bass, but when an act this early in its career refuses to improvise, refuses to tinker and flat-out refuses to offer the audience an alternate take of a song, one can't help but wonder whether the song was ever there to begin with.
SXSW is not where you come to work out the kinks. It's where you play through them.
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