I owe Lord Huron a partial apology: During the band’s grandiose, enveloping set at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater yesterday I dropped a lazy tweet: “Entrancing performance from Lord Huron at ACL Theater. Also, I have now basically seen Fleet Foxes #twobirds #SXSW.” What I didn’t realize then was just how bluntly the comparison had been used to bludgeon the band into spinoff status. Pitchfork damned Lonesome Dreams, the group’s 2012 debut, with whisperingly faint praise, invoking the Foxes (and My Morning Jacket) wherever possible and rating the record a glum 5.6/10. What’s so annoying about the hyper-referential haters is that they rarely consider the possibility that perhaps frontman/founder Ben Schneider is drawing not on Robin Pecknold or Jim James, but on a plenty worthy muse of his own.
That, at any rate, was the reassuring sense I got at last night’s show. Yes, the Foxy touches are undeniable: slow, incremental guitar melodies that sound like Aaron Copland lost in the forest, and soaring, reverbed vocal harmonies that belong in a cathedral. But Schneider’s band is so good that his occasionally inscrutable lyrics about the splendors of nature, etc., come off as a conscious counterpoint to the very electric propulsion of the music. This is three-guitar rock done right. Fellow axe men Tom Renaud and Karl Kerfoot are capable of the hard-grind sonic breakdown one expects from Wilco, but they also create upper-register textures so rich that there’s no need for organ—the band doesn’t have one. On slow-jams “Ghost on the Shore” and “In the Wind,” the band stretched its legs without ever noodling, the guitars urging each other up the fretboard and twining into a wail as plaintive and memorable as Schneider’s own stratospheric voice. Drummer Mark Barry fixes a tambourine above his hi-hat (a smart technique and one I’m surprised more percussionists don’t use) and tends to lean in when he’s layering beats within beats on the toms with a pair of mallets. The band commandeers various virtues of the Shins and the Foxes, yes, but with an undeniable voice of its own—and a very welcoming one indeed.
Shortly after the Huron show, I hit the HypeMachine showcase to catch Phosphorescent, a band that has fared better among indie tastemakers. The group offered four songs, all ballads (even when the bass was hitting it hard) and all rather maudlin-sounding, too, though it can be quite hard to distinguish the lyrics of founder/frontman Matthew Houck (he sings in the tight-mouthed Dylan vein, or in the reticent phrasings of Tallest Man on Earth’s Kristian Matsson). Workmanlike guitars did their level best to elevate the proceedings, but the utter lack of anything in the way of syncopation or musical surprise was sort of astonishing. What’s a guy gotta do to get a key change? But Houck’s main problem lies with the rhythm section; lay a few James Brown records on that drummer and call me in the morning.