We asked our two music writers to pick the acts they are most looking forward to at this year’s 35 Denton, which runs from March 7-10.
Earlier this week, a well-respected editor and I were discussing the subtle difference between “under-appreciated” and “undiscovered.” How do you use these words to describe an artist without being completely offensive, or worse, inaccurate? I’m blindly throwing this list together without consulting our other music writer, whose tastes are quite different from mine; lucky you. I can’t say for certain that there won’t be some crossover, but I think it’s a decent bet. The following acts are the most under-appreciated and undiscovered names in the entire festival, at least in this region. But I hope I’m wrong about that.
Locrian (Performing at Rubber Gloves on Sunday, March 10 at 11:30 PM): Chicago’s Locrian take so much time trudging through the ambient fog and haze of their music that it almost seems past the point of impact when they finally get to the “Black Metal” part. But that’s actually what makes the group so interesting—that through their many, many recordings, they seem to purposely avoid any and all signifiers of a particular genre. Music stretched this far past its obvious conclusion is a rarity, and it’s as refreshing to hear a band make you reconsider extreme music as it is challenging.
Little Birds (Performing at Burguesa on Saturday, March 9 at 12:30 AM): On a rainy weeknight in 2012 I drove over thirty minutes north to hang out in a depressing bar in Mckinney’s downtown area to eat awful food. Why? Because Brooke Opie Ragusa of Little Birds is one of the better singers of her fighting class in the area and almost nobody seems to know it. The group plays fluttery, hi-fructose pop music in a manner that is not as ubiquitous as it once was. But when you hear Opie sing, it becomes evident that her ability has never been common anywhere.
Reigning Sound (Performing on Main Stage Two on Sunday, March 10 at 5 PM): A lot of artists have been compared to Dylan over the years, and its either a kiss of death or completely off-target. But personally, I see only one natural heir to at least certain aspects of the icon of song’s legacy, and that’s the Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright. Put aside the singer’s political agenda and instead consider the relationship-obsessed Dylan who elevates his own heartbreak to the level of lost wars, or the devil-may-care Dylan who made being a jerk who reeks of burgundy such a dangerously inspiring figure over so many decades. The Reigning Sound have tackled that recklessness over multiple neo-classic records using both country and garage rock’s most basic tools. In doing so, they have almost single-handedly saved the entire genre. Listen to “What Could I Do?” or “If You Can’t Give Me Everything” if you don’t believe me.
L-Vis 1990 (Performing at The Hive on Thursday, March 7 at 1 AM): Though this is simply listed as L-Vis 1990, since the DJ is the co-founder of one of the label’s showcasing at a new Denton venue called the Hive this evening, really this entire event should be recommended. Local DJ collective Track Meet has enlisted two very forward-thinking labels in the world of dance music, both Fade to Mind from Los Angeles, and Night Slugs from the UK, for a very unique evening that is far different from the same safe-bet touring names that appear in Dallas on an annual basis, and in Denton, almost never.
These self-described labels, collectives, and even “movements” bring various electronic disciplines together, but most recognizably the sounds of bass music and house, with twisted updates on RnB and hip hop sounds as well. The aforementioned L-Vis 1990 is one of the more accessible acts performing at the Hive, and the involvement of Prince William ties the area’s rich underground past to its ambitious and self-aware present self.
Vulgar Fashion (Performing at Hailey’s on Saturday, March 9 at 10:30 PM): This has been one of the area’s pleasantly jarring live bands for years now, and most local publications probably slapped their name down on a regular basis without really considering the extent to which they had honed their craft behind a blown-out sheet of beats and synths. But as Vulgar Fashion’s upcoming self-titled 10-inch reveals, this duo has a handle on highly listenable synthesizer-based pop music that has been described as both “beautiful” and “emotive” by internationally recognized chroniclers of hip and intelligent culture.
I hate to pick on the local music media, but the fact that this band has earned more press accolades from outside of our supposedly reliable circuit of music writers is a little shameful. Though music writing is often compared to sports writing, North Texas’ coverage of music can be seen this way: The same popular teams are covered every week, and yet they never really win a single game. Meanwhile the teams who are largely ignored go on to win a title, and they almost inevitably move to a city where they will be naturally appreciated. That’s why ranking artists and listing “top acts” is not only pointless, it makes us all feel silly. But please, go see Vulgar Fashion at 35 Denton and do yourself a favor and pick up one of their limited-edition records, which is released by Handmade Birds. You’ll still be able to do so in a month, even when there isn’t a big festival going on. Aren’t we so lucky that way?
Satans of Soft Rock (Performing at Andy’s Bar on Thursday, March 7 at 9:30 PM): If you live in DFW, you have ample opportunity to see members of this band perform together in RTB and the Last Joke and Hares on the Mountain. Rarer are the chances to see the Satans of Soft Rock, where Tony Ferraro and his impeccable songwriting move to the foreground. The Satans have yet to release a physical copy of their music, preferring instead to publish songs piecemeal over the internet. This 35 Denton performance gives fans a chance to hear the band’s demonic canon as a whole in front of a hometown crowd.
Ralph White (Performing at Dan’s Silver Leaf on Thursday, March 7 at 11:30 PM): For Ralph White, I can only imagine how vividly the world must appear. If there is something that exceeds seeing in color, that is the vantage White enjoys. A veteran Austin musician, White is a globetrotting connoisseur of music, but still deeply rooted in the American tradition. His music, played on a hodgepodge of traditional American instruments and others he picked up during a trans-African bike ride, floats on the same haunting, Appalachian draft. His performance is sure to be as unique as his arsenal of banjos and kalimbas. And for the sake of everyone else attending this performance, let me give you some pre-show instructions: shush.
Brutal Juice (Performing at Main Stage One on Friday, March 8 at 6:00 PM): Denton-born Brutal Juice is the festival’s best connection to the city’s Fry Street era. A band that once flirted with MTV airtime in the mid-90s (take some time to recall an MTV that would actually play a Brutal Juice video), the group has actually remained connected since their “disbanding” in 1997. Brutal Juice typically plays once or twice a year to local audiences, but this year’s appearance at 35 Denton commences something much more substantial. The band has been convening in a 160-year-old barn in Elgin, TX to work on new material. Brutal Juice is using this performance, plus three SXSW appearances, as a launch pad before heading into the studio with producer John Congleton. Guitarist Gordon Gibson is excited to craft new material, which he describes as less “druggy” than older albums, but still in a vein that will please loyal Brutal Juice fans. “We haven’t gone new wave or anything,” says Gibson. “And we haven’t introduced a banjo.”
Thee Oh Sees (Performing at Main Stage Two on Sunday, March 10 at 7:00 PM): Once Floating Coffin drops this year, Thee Oh Sees will have issued seven full length albums in six years, which doesn’t include everything John Dwyer was doing before 2008. The point is you can’t go wrong seeing a band that has had as much practice as San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees. The band’s catalog runs a madcap course through painstaking delirium and sneaker-tapping pop, all of it peculiar and well executed. A group that trusts its instincts and is as dynamic as Thee Oh Sees is certain to keep the audience engaged. The only drawback is that an act this tantalizing drew a slot on the impersonal main stage.
Marnie Stern (Performing at Dan’s Silver Leaf on Sunday, March 10 at 12:30 AM): Marnie Stern is to double-fretting what Bill Russell was to blocked shots. The New York based singer-guitarist turned a Guitar Center parlor trick into an art form. Her song “Nothing Left,” off her 2010 self-titled album, still ranks among one of my favorite songs ever recorded. Stern’s frenetic compositions are a long way from mindless shredding or pedantic, jazzy noodling. She corrals the style into something both transcendent and palpable. In such a monotonous field, Marnie Stern is truly innovative, an overused term that ought to be reserved for an artist as singular as Stern. Marnie is set to release her fourth album, The Chronicles of Marnia, this month on the Kill Rock Stars label.
Photo: Thee Oh Sees via