Austin City Limits Music Festival – October 8-10, 2010, Austin, TX

The 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival continued to make the three-day event’s case as one of the best festivals on the planet. It went off with nary a hitch, and in fact, this year’s edition may have had the festival’s best weather yet. There was no dust, no rain to turn Zilker Park into a giant mud pit (like last year) and the high temperature never reached 90. The sunny afternoons were still plenty hot, but the evenings were downright balmy. Some local fans bitched about the overall lineup when it was first announced, but there truly was something for everyone in the festival’s ever-eclectic lineup. The festival once again sold out well in advance, and again proved to be one of the best weekends of the year for any serious music fan.

The tasty local cuisine available at ACL is topped only by New Orleans’ Jazzfest (although unfortunately neither fest seems willing to bring in local beer), and the football tent returned to enable sports fans to get a fix in between music sets. There were only a handful of occasions where the crowd scene proved overly massive and hard to navigate. Overall, it was three days of near-utopian rock ‘n’ roll bliss. If the word “groovy” is overused in this review, it’s only because there were indeed so many such moments. The biggest problem was choosing between competing bands in a series of mind-bending conflicts: Silversun Pickups vs Broken Bells, Monsters of Folk vs LCD Soundsystem, Phish vs The Strokes, The Flaming Lips vs Band of Horses, and the terrible three-way Friday night dilemma of Sonic Youth vs Robert Randolph & the Family Band vs Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses. Cloning technology can’t arrive soon enough.

Friday, October 8

Those Darlins, Austin Ventures Stage
This upbeat Tennessee quartet featured a relatively unique mix of country punk and garage rock to create a fun vibe. Singer/guitarist Jessi Darlin’s gritty voice recalled Courtney Love at times in its ragged splendor, but with more of a country flavor. “Red Light Love” saw the band at its best on a fuzzy, melodic rocker about the combination of good love and good music.

Blues Traveler, AMD Stage
It seemed like a flashback to the mid-’90s when Blues Traveler drew a huge crowd to the festival’s second largest stage to really get ACL going. It’s been great to see the band able to persevere through the tragic death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan and the health problems of singer/harmonica ace John Popper, who is now fit and sounding great as ever. Underrated guitarist Chan Kinchla always keeps things groovy on his PRS guitar and his brother Tad fits right in on bass. A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was a surprise crowd pleaser, followed shortly thereafter with the band’s 1994 hit “Run-Around.” But the clear peak of the set – and one of the top highlights of the entire weekend – occurred when the band welcomed 15-year-old violinist Ruby Jane to sit in on “Mulling It Over.” Jane, who would play her own set on Sunday morning, proved to be a dynamic prodigy. She immediately accented the hard rocking tune in tasteful fashion, before teaming with Popper for a superb violin-harmonica duel that won the weekend’s first huge cheer.

The Black Keys, AMD Stage
The Akron, Ohio-based blues rock duo hit the stage at 4 pm in front of a massive crowd that made it tough for anyone arriving late to get close enough to enjoy. There were so many people camped out in their lawn chairs that the entire area became quite difficult to navigate. The Black Keys are clearly surging in popularity – they played to about 10,000 fans at the 2008 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco, but this crowd was at least three times as large. I finally gave up and decided I’d rather check out the next band on the intimate BMI stage.

ACL Black Keys

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Silversun Pickups, Swoon

Silversun Pickups, Swoon

From Los Angeles rockers, Silversun Pickups comes Swoon, a purely alternative follow-up to their 2006 release Carnavas. This record runs long, most songs reaching past the four-minute mark, and although most critics agree that it’s a decent sophomore effort, they also agree a certain intensity is unfortunately absent from the record.

Without giving too much away, Rolling Stone wrote, “[this] band still has some growing to do, but it knows how to have fun with fuzz and where to find the beauty in noise.” I would argue that growth is a given, especially for a young band in today’s industry; without forward movement even the best of them fade into the background. With Swoon, however, the evolution is audible.

Silversun Pickups’ first record was constructed around a mellower, almost overly emotional sound that has been roughed up and built upon on Swoon. Although the Smashing Pumpkins influences are still quite audible, the added edge of Swoon alone proves this band is anything but a one-trick-pony. The LA Times elaborated on Silversun Pickups evolution saying Swoon, “chose not to go bigger but deeper…[and] the band keeps careful control over its humming, hissing distortion effects.” The Times goes on to compare the Silversun Pickups to Fleetwod Mac guitarist and songwriter Lindsey Buckingham, saying Swoon,

“suggests a more apropos reference in late-’70s Lindsey Buckingham…challenging fans with subversive new rhythms and ideas with the otherwise comfortable pop package…the Silversun Pickups just do it louder.”

The originality is there, separating Silversun Pickups from the barrage of wanna-be rock bands that just can’t get it together. Swoon is fun, and easy to listen to, and that’s more than can be said about half the music on the charts right now. wrote, “what makes Swoon such an enjoyable album to listen to is its youthful exuberance. Though Silversun Pickups tackle the ‘difficult second album’ in a relatively serious manner, Swoon’s prevailing mood is nonchalant and confident.”

The overall feel of Swoon is definitely confident, but makes another observation, writing, “SSPU salute misery as a kind of ideal, the opposite of love, but just as beautiful.” The heavier emotions that come through on Swoon are present in the opener, “There’s No Secrets This Year” and subsequent tracks such as “Draining” and the brooding “Catch and Release.” And while singer Brian Aubert’s delicate tenor is a bit out of place next to layers of guitars, the Silversun Pickups manage to make it work more often than not.

Not everyone is keen on Swoon, however. called the record, “a trip best made with headphones”—a comment that could be taken either way—and wrote,

Swoon ultimately delivers the exact same results as its predecessor mostly because it’s written in nearly the exact same way. The problem all along for the Silversun Pickups isn’t that they sound too much like the Smashing Pumpkins. They just sound way too much like themselves”

While I would argue that Swoon displays just enough growth to differentiate it from previous releases, trashed the record writing, “the Pickups have released an album with only two or three tracks to justify its existence” and goes on to write, “

“Brian Aubert’s unaccomplished vocals are another liability. His androgynous tenor sounds consistently strained, and though he clearly wants to write anthems, he lacks the range to deliver a compelling hook.” goes on to write,

“even [Swoon’s] best tracks tempt one’s finger toward the skip button, and the truly aimless fair that makes up the majority of the record will try the patience of even those listeners sympathetic to the band’s sound.”

Fortunately the bashing stops there. Silversun Pickups may not be on the top of everyone’s Top 10 list, but the fact of the matter is that, with Swoon, the band has created a worthwhile follow-up to their 2006 debut. Critics may not be able to see past Aubert’s softer tenor, or the layers of embellishments of Swoon, but the substance is there. Swoon is a thoughtful compilation of alternative rock tracks with an indie-edge that has Silversun Pickups written all over it. It’s the perfect sophomore record for a young band from Los Angeles, CA and only time will tell how far it will take them.

For more information on the Silversun Pickups check out the bands website, MySpace, or Facebook. And don’t miss the Silversun Pickups coming soon to a city near you!