I left this latest Free Week show with an unusual feeling: I wished that I had gotten the chance to see the first band play the second band's equipment. Is this odd? Of course, I'm an irredeemable gearhead. "See that Alesis keyboard? I want one of those," I told my girlfriend. She said, "Alesis is the name of the girl with the flower in her hair?" "No, Alesis is the name of the keyboard. I didn't notice the girl." That's where my mind is these days.
But see if you follow me here. String were excellent musicians, playing songs that mixed rock and electronic influences in clever ways. I liked that their songs had strong structures, with even the longer instrumental sections seeming to have arc and control. I really dug the way their drummer was able to moderate his volume level very precisely, backing off just a little bit when the vocals were meant to have the spotlight and placing emphasis in well-chosen spots. The way the dance element of their sound incorporated itself was in guitar and keyboard figures that grew more complex each time through a repeating section. They also used rhythm in a gripping and original way -- their last song had a baroque piano line thoroughly disguised by a vigorous and funky interpretation of waltz time by the drummer.
Their only problem (other than somewhat bland vocals) was the curse of too much stuff. They had too many computers and gizmos and guitars cluttering the stage and it led to muddy sound and long, awkward pauses between songs. Not necessary -- the core of their sound is one guitar, one keyboard, and live drums. Is the shortage of bass players in Austin so severe that we must resort to computer simulations? I'm against it, and I think String would have come across even better if they were freed from having to chain themselves to the rigid nature of canned beats on some of their songs. The most gripping moment of their set came when they stripped down to one guitar, drum kit, and then a second guy pounding on a tom with mallets. They also need a name change, because if you Google "string Austin band" you're going to get literally hundreds of responses that have nothing to do with this trio.
After the claustrophobic setup of String, their two-keyboard, pared-down drums look was initially refreshing, but Obsolete Machines are further proof that you can't tell anything from canned online sound clips. They've got an aesthetic suited for 30-second bursts, as their leader is a great singer (like Chris Martin fronting MGMT) and their brooding but stylish sound is quite of the moment. Unfortunately 30 seconds is exactly as long as they remain interesting. They have a well-honed sound but no substance. Their songs have no changes at all, merely repeating two-chord arpeggios that are broken up only by the drummer stopping and starting. (Not changing feels, as he has seemingly only the one.) There are some pretty figures that their singer plays, but by repeating them without interruption for the length of each composition they're reduced to drones.
It's all right for one person to do most of the heavy lifting in a band, but you don't want the support musicians to actively be making things worse. Obsolete Machines, in a possibly ironic reference to their band name, have two people puttering along behind the leader who serve only to distract. The drummer has mastery of one beat and his overly reverberating kicks are all over the place. The second keyboard player presses buttons at random and spins knobs around to produce psychedelic whining. This can be a cool effect when properly applied, but due to lack of musical savvy it ended up just creating screeching noises that didn't relate musically to the figures that the only real player in the band was producing. Even though their songs have the most basic chord movement and rhythms imaginable, the drummer and second keyboardist could have been completely absent and it wouldn't have affected the sound even a little. It might have made things better, in fact, since without the band lineup the Obsolete Machines would have had less excuse to stretch out their ponderous two-chord tunes for six, seven minutes each.
I'm really enjoying the opportunities these free week shows offer to burst hype bubbles like helium balloons.