You want it darker: Into the electropop shadows at SXSW 2017

Hooks and synths don’t take the easy way out with The Japanese House, Sylvan Esso, Future Islands and more.


I know that the nation is wracked with turmoil right now, but geez. Doesn’t anyone make happy, bleepy, bloopy music anymore?

If you’re looking for synth-driven delights at South by Southwest Music Festival — the festival that in recent years brought us the middle-finger shimmer of Chvrches, the FM glee of Smallpools and the bubblegum bliss of Betty Who — you’ll need to pack an overnight bag and your own disco ball, because it’s a tough search in 2017.

A deep dive into the pop ledger for this year’s fest reveals a far more complicated terrain that doesn’t rest on verse-bridge-chorus dopamine. Pop divas with name recognition like Charli XCX are nowhere to be found. Even radio-aligned, witching-hour nightclub fuel like AlunaGeorge looks sparse. In 2017, the fest’s synthesized offerings are darker and far more willing to seep through genre lines. Let’s take the pulse of electropop at SXSW, from the moody to the groovy to the completely unknown.

The Japanese House: Moody wooze

London’s Amber Bain, via her SXSW bio, professes to spin “timeless synth-pop whose layered vocals and lavish textures unfold into infinite dimensions of feeling.” Between you and me, it makes sense that electronic pop would eventually make it back around to Imogen Heap. In the Japanese House, the “Let Go” singer with the knack for futuristic feeling fuel has a more demure descendent. To listen to a song like “Clean” is to get drunk on vodka, Sprite, woozy treble and vocal distortion, its thoughtful intricacy masked by a shy touch. Bain’s 2016 EP, “Swim Against the Tide,” maintains the Japanese House’s party line of devotion to mid-2000s ambience: “Good side in” in particular edges up to the wistful impulses for which you might normally turn to Wild Nothing, and “Leon” (inspired by the Natalie Portman movie) sounds like a walk through the rainforest. The Japanese House is never cheerful but always pleasantly reminiscent of a slow-mo fall through the air. (11 p.m. March 17 at Latitude 30)

Sylvan Esso: One-size-fits-all dance party

A relatively established act in the SXSW electropop lineup this year, this North Carolina duo dials into digital simplicity. My colleague Deborah Sengupta Stith wrote in 2014 that singer Amelia Metah’s “clear, haunting voice,” when paired with producer Nick Sanborn’s “sparse, trip-hop beats,” made for cross-genre appeal. In other words, familiar tunes like “Hey Mami” and “Coffee” are distilled into component parts from which any listener can draw what they want, as long as it has just a hint of sadness. This year, Sylvan Esso has a new album on the way. If twitchier, whirring singles “Radio” and “Kick Jump Twist” are any indication, don’t look for any shift to warm synth swells — we’re getting crispy circuit board bops aplenty. (9:20 p.m. March 15 at Stubb’s)

Future Islands: Yeah, ‘synthpop,’ sure

Well, some sources say that kings of SXSW past Future Islands are synthpop, but I’ve seen them live enough to say that’s like describing a hurricane as a misting fan just because it’s wet. The Grulke Prize winners are more of a full sensory experience than a pop band, centered on Samuel T. Herring’s growling, muscular, chest-thumping performances and sensitive but rousing rock songs tied together by otherworldly sounds from Gerrit Welmer’s keyboard. Future Islands dropped a single last month, “Run,” that would please any “Seasons (Waiting On You)” diehards, full of snappy syncopation, Herring yawps and New Age ambience rising underneath it all. This is a “hail the conquering hero” moment. (1 a.m. March 17 at Mohawk outdoors)

Sad13: Pop startling

If you were already a Speedy Ortiz fan, your first guess about a potential solo outing from frontwoman Sadie Dupuis actually might have been “wry pop project actively seeking to counter misogynist lyricism.” Dupuis’ debut as Sad13, “Slugger,” tilts all the way into Speedy Ortiz’s dissonant, atonal slackerdom and adds sugar-and-spice electronic flourishes for some truly strange songcraft. Citing influences from Santigold to Grimes to Waxahatchee, Dupuis says she’s aiming to create the anti-“Genie In a Bottle.” One listen to a song like the loopy earworm “Just a Friend” and its cheery call to “objectify these boys,” and you know she’s succeeded. (1 a.m. March 16 at The Main II)

Wet Baes: Electro&B

It’s a good time for sexy music in these here United States, which is why Mexico City’s Wet Baes is hitting SXSW at just the right time. If you’re in the How To Dress Well fan club but always thought that indie R&B act should sound more like synth hallucinator Washed Out, 20-year-old Andrés Jaime has the perfect fit. With Facebook interests listed as “Chill 80’s Teen Vibez,” Wet Baes’ electro-infused take on all things smooth and slow layers distant, yearning vocals with tones and chimes that wouldn’t sound out of place in Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. Part Dev Hynes, part the soundtrack to “Drive,” all midnight neon sex appeal. (Time TBA on March 17 at The Townsend)

A few more electropop acts worth checking out

Birthday: Skittering, minimalist bedroom passions with a captivating chillwave soul. Every song sounds like a love scene. (9 p.m. March 15 at CU29)

Ariana & the Rose: This fest is hurting for pop divas. New York’s Ariana DiLorenzo namechecks Robyn and Kate Bush in her SXSW bio, but her sparkly strength is giving us a diamond with many facets. (11 p.m. March 18 at 18th Floor at Hilton Garden Inn)

Night Drive: Austin festival fixtures flawlessly executing the sound of being chased through the world of “Tron” with a laser gun. (Time TBA on March 15 at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room)

Flor: The kind of earnest, tight crowdpleasers that make you think “this sound like a grown-up MySpace music,” and then you see that they’re signed to Fueled By Ramen, and you realize that’s exactly what this band is. “Hold On” is a sweet little treasure. (7:30 p.m. March 17 at Bungalow)

Elle Exxe: An electroclash wildchild landing somewhere between Charli XCX and The Waitresses, with a husky, seen-it-all voice. Most songs come with a snarl. (9 p.m. March 16 at Tellers; 9 p.m. March 18 at The Townsend)



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