A representative, if frustratingly impressionistic, regional-cultural update on Austin’s now epochal music scene, Echotone sounds all too often like a disillusioned city talking to itself. Stitched together from myriad snippets of live performances, interviews, and plaintive cityscape B-roll, the documentary profiles a small collection of shoulda-been’s and hopefuls waiting for their break, and further implies the retarding of the area’s once-fecund art community via gentrification and a sheer glut of talent. Among those featured are Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ funky frontman, who as a “working musician” in multiple senses delivers fish to finance his pruriently bass-heavy playtime; the stoically mystic Bill Baird of Sound Team, who provides the film’s obligatory cautionary tale on big-label seduction; and Cari Palazzolo of Belaire, who’s not sure if she ever wants to graduate from the plucky, beep-booping demo-like tracks she and her band record.
Director Nathan Christ dithers between fashioning the film as a glossing study of metropolitan personality and a virtual advertisement for the groups included; he captures many examples of the bands’ lively stage presences, but has a tendency to cut away before they can entirely convince us of their listenability, providing audiences new to the Texan oasis with an arrhythmic mixtape. (Later, when a talking head ponders the quite literally thousands of Austin-based bands attempting to achieve celebrity, we further wonder who and what was left out of the documentary’s brief roster.) And without our having converted to the talents of the included artists, their frequent bitching about “selling out” (which is to be avoided at all costs) and the noisome, free-for-all of a black hole of SXSW (which is to be avoided at all costs) comes across as undeservedly solipsistic.
This egocentricism is further calcified by a near-avoidance of the Internet’s positive effects on the music industry. One local record producer, who essentially sells his favorite bands’ CDs out of his garage, bemoans the “teeming mass of creative culture” in Austin and the city’s lack of infrastructure—but when the conversation shifts to the potential of ecommerce and viral marketing for this ostensible plethora of great groups, he immediately brings up piracy. Palazzolo, to her credit, expresses at least apathy toward file sharing, being somewhat gratified by the sheer thought that her music is being listened to, but Christ makes it seem as though very few of his other subjects have even heard of the Internet. (Sound Team actually posted their entire discography on their now-defunct website, but the film is far more interested in Baird’s perfunctory distribution method of handing out vinyl to friends.) It’s an understandable omission; the director is trying to show the face-to-face cohesion and wealth of gifted musicians that Austin has maintained through a period of intimidating change away from its grassroots ethos. But without bothering to compromise with the possibilities that lie in the city’s future, he evinces a sense of entitlement to traditional indie success that leaks into his portraiture. So for those outside of a 50-mile-or-so radius of Stubbs, Echotone can be pretty irksomely lost in its own headspace.