SXSW Music Review: Yard Act, Do Nothing, Squid, and the Art of the British Post-Punk Soliloquy
SXSW Music’s bread-n-butter: cutting edge UK rebellion
By Kevin Curtin,
10:30PM, Fri. Mar. 19, 2021
To borrow a parlance from 2021 featured speakers Desus & Mero, “the brand is strong” with the British Music Embassy at South by Southwest – especially when it comes to talk-singing post punk acts.
Saturday night, 1am, SXSW 2015: I recall standing in the rain outside the big open windows of Latitude 30, watching the young Dublin-based band Girl Pool deliver nervy, noisy poetry in front of a capacity crowd. Around that time, I noticed UK bands channeling their rebellion into a sound hallmarked by no-rules post-punk with lyrics not sung or screamed, but delivered like a soliloquy: easy to understand, sometimes harder to comprehend.
In subsequent years, England and Ireland exported Idles, Shame, and Fontaines DC – all owning a high standard of the sweaty communion of live performance – to SXSW, where they amassed “you gotta see this band” buzz prior to touring through independently. Friday’s trio of British acts portended the next class of that expansive sound.
Leeds quartet Yard Act, formed amongst flatmates in 2019, appeared from the primo-produced BME stage drenched in blue gel lights, singer James Smith outfitted in a trench coat and loads of everyday angst. They launched into “Fixer Upper,” a brilliantly verbose single, in which a dense new homeowner ruminates about receiving a letter addressed to the previous tenant.
“I got a Prosecco o’clock poster half price in Ikea.
It goes nicely with the existential fear that I feel.
When I accidentally wonder what I’m really doing here.
And how long I’ve got left before I’m six feet under.”
”Dark Days,” the title track from Yard Act’s excellent 2021 debut EP, hit even harder, evidencing the trebly, thumping, minimalist rock group’s ability to hit a simple, memorable hook. Two songs later, they brought it home with “The Trapper’s Pelts,” a song that sounds lyrically inane at the beginning, then takes you on a long, strange roundabout to the moral: “capitalism is bullshit.”
”I am just dying for a bite to eat. There’s something weird going on out there, man!” deadpans Chris Bailey, frontman for Nottingham fourpiece Do Nothing, which is an apropos name for a band playing an iteration of SXSW you watch from your couch. The frontman, in his collared shirt, looks every bit the well-heeled art school graduate who nonetheless gets kicked out of pubs for saying weird shit. Opener “Glueland” thrived on the the deep, distinct bass lines of Charles Howarth, which contribute the group sometimes resembling a morose Talking Heads.
Do Nothing’s subtle danceability, buoyed by Holwarth’s deep grooves and an overall crisp and clean style of playing, thrived on signature song “Lebron James.” Meanwhile, Bailey’s unhinged charm continued to be a winning formula all the way up to the final refrain of set-ender “Gangs,” wherein “I don’t buy it” loops into eternity.
Squid’s a strange musical culmination: lead singer Ollie Judge also drums, they have outside-the-box instrumentation, they’re sarcastic yet passionate, and they play compositionally unpredictable post-punk in way that’s ludicrously engaging. All that came into immediate focus with a percussion-heavy opener, ostensibly titled “Concrete Island,” where a four-note trumpet line drastically altered the feel of the song mid-tune. They’re emblematic of the refreshing creative latitude you see in the scene surrounding England’s Speedy Wunderground label, which also involves Black Midi and Black Country, New Road.
The headlining set from the quintet (10 arms, get it?) lasted twice as long than their showcase-mates, which allowed them to unfurl their epic compositions such as the eight-and-a-half minute “Narrator,” featuring fantastic interlocking guitar parts and a crescendoing breakdown on which the keyboard sounded like the stabbing sound from Hitchcock’s Psycho. The group’s family style approach to songcraft peaked with the three lead vocalist utilizing “Paddling,” the pre-single from May’s full-length debut Bright Green Field, which closed down the performance intensely with Judge’s wrench-tight driving drumbeat falling over a rotor-blade rhythm, mathy guitar accents, and ultimately a soaring wall of noise over the repeated ethos: “Don’t push me in!”
The showcase scratched an itch for cutting edge UK heaviness, but proved too effective because it rubbed the wound of us not being able to feel it in person.