Year of the Elephant

Dead guys, psychedelic pop, and no sober opinions at South by Southwest 1998

Beginning with "New Music Machine" and running, no soaring, through "Count Five or Six," "Free Fall," and three more cuts from the Matador rerelease of Fantasma, already a multiplatinum hit in Japan, Cornelius and his band out-Bloodied My Bloody Valentine, hit every tricky three-part Beach Boy harmony, yanked samples and Aphex Twin-style beats out of a stand full of chords and electronics, and ripped Cheap Trick-ish riffs off of a creamy flying V guitar. Did I mention the part where he did "Love Me Tender" on theremin? If you believe in reincarnation, you might want to think of Cornelius as a new Os Mutantes, the Brazilian band that matched a worldly pastiche of psychedelia with a localized bossa nova beat in the late 1960s. Both the inventiveness and the outright joy that comes from imitating and often usurping your musical heroes come through on every cut. The impending phenomenon that is Cornelius suggests that England will no longer be the only country that can take good American ideas, run with them, and make us Americans hear what we do in an entirely new way. God save Japan.

Later (read: drunker) Friday night at the Continental Club -- a dive-lover's dive a few doors down from a boutique called Just Guns -- Austin's Asylum Street Spankers impressively quieted the "vicious corporate fucks making deals in the back room." (There was just a bit of posturing in that remark: I saw more grinning souses than corporate fucks.) The Spankers, a 10-piece folk orchestra, demand silence because they eschew "demon eee-lec-tricity." The shtick doesn't stop there. A fat man in overalls and a trucker cap plays a plastic slide whistle on a song about UFOs; a crew-cut tough guy in Ray-Bans hums a kazoo on a song about weed; the whole band sings backup on songs about a crazy bomber and Lee Harvey Oswald. ("Back, and to the left," and heads snap.) Novelty, yes, but the musicianship -- courtesy of, among others, the stellar clarinetist and an impassioned American steel player -- proved that there is a deep appreciation at root. Wink.

The man to watch was unwatched, mostly. Bill Stanten, otherwise known as Birddog, played a thinly attended midday Saturday set with his ever-expanding band on the straw-covered back lot of the Yard Dog Gallery, a wonderful folk art shop where you can buy paintings by Mekon/Waco Brother Langford and dioramas of Django Reinhardt by artist Suzie Millions. At last year's SXSW, Birddog was just a nervous guy picking his way through a couple of well-crafted songs. This year, after a 7-inch produced by Portland folkie Elliott Smith and the excellent short album The Trackhouse, the Valley, the Liquor Store Drive-Thru, the young Kentuckian was accompanied by a sleepy three-piece. (At one point, Stanten dropped his guitar. "What do you expect, it's 2:30 in the afternoon?") Stanten's new songs are thematically consistent with his older work, still based on long narratives and loaded images. "And the air is full of something surely dying," he announced on an older song. "The pistol that I gave you is lying on the floor," he sang on another. Imagine Gram Parsons in all of his glorious pedal-steel twang, or a rural Elliott Smith singing about killer girls and country life instead of drinking St. Ides and walking in between parked cars. Imagine, but wait. Birddog will tour a couple of East Coast dates with Smith, and he has a publishing deal with the same person who signed Beck and Mary Lou Lord, but he's apparently having label problems; a new record isn't coming out on Bong Load as scheduled.

On Saturday night at the University of Texas Ballroom, where the chandeliers are made of wrought iron and you can look out the window and see the tower from which ex-Marine Charles Whitman picked off pedestrians with a rifle in 1966, I got slayed by the country chanteuse, guitar player, and deceptively complex moralizer known as Iris DeMent. The blood on my face? DeMent ripped out my heart, and it was the only thing I could find to wipe the tears off my cheeks.

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