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SXSW: Spoon and Broken Bells, Stubbs, Austin, Texas, March 17

March 18, 2010

The microchip has changed rock’n'roll forever. It has added a whole new palette of sounds and a whole new level of precision that can be perfectly repeated forever. But there is danger in these new possibilities—danger that the otherworldly sonics might crowd out handmade noises, danger that perfectibility may obscure the imperfections that are the true subject of great songwriting. The challenge is how to retain the microchip’s advantages while compensating for its weaknesses.

The opening night of this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, closed out with two bands who have solved this dilemma. Broken Bells came on at 11 p.m. at Stubb’s; Spoon followed after midnight, and both reminded us that melody can dissolve all apparent conflicts.

Stubb’s is the large backyard of a legendary barbecue joint; wooden fences close off the grassy lawn from the rest of downtown, and a large stage sits at the bottom of the slope with a white, plastic wing projecting overhead. It’s longer and narrower than Pier Six but about the same size—and the line of people outside who couldn’t get in was long.

Broken Bells, the new collaboration between singer-guitarist James Mercer of the Shins and Beck/Gnarls Barkley producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), had just released its impressive debut album and anticipation was high. The two co-leaders were backed by two more guitarists, another keyboardist, bassist, and drummer, and the septet was silhouetted through the entire show by black-and-white film footage of geometric designs and sci-fi motifs. The latter were apt, for the music was wrapped in a cosmic swirl of synths, guitar effects, and rhythm loops.

Underneath all spacey reverie, however, was a really good pop band with hummable hooks and danceable grooves. The set began with the band’s first single, “The High Road,” whose syncopated thump suggested the one-way push of time and whose tune captured the resulting ache of the line, “It’s too late to change your mind.” “The Ghost Inside” resembled a disco hit on downers; the beat was slowed down but just as persuasive, and when the chorus hook proclaimed, “She’s a star tonight,” the melody was full of the glitter such a claim requires.

Here was the rare collaboration between two established stars that transcended their past work. Here was a fusion of microchip magic and human vulnerability that was perfectly balanced. Here was a mix of sonic invention and timeless pop craftsmanship that reminded one of Garbage and the Flaming Lips.

Spoon was even better. The hometown quartet (supplemented for this show by a second drummer) was returning in triumph, for their recent album, Transference, had debuted at No. 4 on the pop charts. In contrast to the sumptuous lushness of Broken Bells, Spoon seemed stripped down; sections of its songs were often little more than a rhythm track. But those grooves had the off-kilter, looping quality of microchip beats, even though they were expertly replicated by drummer Jim Eno. Keyboardist Eric Harvey disrupted the flow of the songs with busts of laptop noise and ringing piano chords.

These tactics soon became appealing melodic bits in themselves and contrasted nicely with the heart-on-a-sleeve rock’n'roll written and sung by singer-guitarist Britt Daniel. Dressed like his three bandmates all in black, Daniel refused to let his tunes resolve as neatly as they had on Spoon’s terrific breakthrough album, 2007′s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; this time his longings and melodies were left hanging, banging up against the jittery noise or left stranded in sudden silences.

It worked wonderfully. The bleak break-up song “Written in Reverse” benefited from Daniel’s half-spoken, half-sung vocal and Harvey’s clanging piano figure; both seemed jarring at first but soon became strangely mesmerizing. “Trouble Comes Running” was a chugging garage-rocker that sounded as unstoppable as its title. “Nobody Gets Me but You” was built around Rob Pope’s booming funk riff and the two drummers, but the beat was slowly but surely swallowed up by Daniel’s sumptuous guitar harmonies. When the band reached back to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for songs such as “The Underdog” and “Don’t Make Me a Target,” the brittle microchip effects and exposed ragged edges added a new drama to songs whose melodic pleasures were too sturdy to be damaged.

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