SXSW 2011 Photo Recap

Phew! Finally life has gotten back to normal after my SXSW trip. here are some live photos I took of Agent Ribbons Dirty Beaches, The Dodos, and Social Studies.

Social Studies… Smarter Than Your Average Pop Band

San Fransisco based prog-pop band, Social Studies, really make you think about what it means to write a pop song. The band seems to openly reject the standard song structure, and instead melds together what sounds like random pieces of a puzzle, coming together to form a beautiful scenic image of a mountain… or something equally as massive in scale. While they may put themselves out there as being overly complex, Social Studies is simply a pop band that puts a little intelligence into their work. Unlike some bands who try to set themselves apart from ho-hum “pop music”, attempting to mask their mediocrity with the “prog” label, Social Studies is a relatively easy listen without an ounce of pretense. Once put together, the final product is something beautiful and majestic, just like the mountain in the puzzle…or whatever

After years of performing around the country, Social Studies has released their long-awaited debut, Wind Up Wooden Heart, on SF-based label, Antenna Farm Records. Within their adventurous styling, you will find many hummable melodies, immaculate vocal harmonies, lush keyboards, crispy guitars and drums that boast both orchestral and dance worthy beats. The band’s press material relates them to Deerhoof – a comparison I find sort of out-of-bounds. Social Studies is far more collected and listenable to their avant-guarde counterparts, though I can see it as a useful analogy when trying to push their commitment to multi-tasking through the songwriting process. A more appropriate correlation would relate singer, Natalia Rogovin, to Katie Eastburn, formerly of Young People, as both women share a powerful range of melodious theatrics, and the band to 90’s rock act, Helium, for their epic compositions that touch indie rock with seasoned orchestration and tact.

Wind Up Wooden Heart is lush, expertly executed and can be enjoyed in a cerebral context, though folks with short attention spans may find it equally satisfying. Each part of Social Studies’ elaborate structure is full of delicious, bite sized sing-a-longs bursting with catchy flavors. Though, I must admit, at first I was a tad frustrated with the album’s multi-sectional themes when I attempted to return to the songs that stuck out most, most of which had become a blur of catchy hooks. It was a musical scavenger hunt at best. Yet, it only made me want to listen to the album as a whole, again and again to recover my favorite parts.

The mood of Wind Up Wooden Heart fluctuates just as much as the compositions themselves. “We Choose Our Own Adventures” is rooted in power pop, serving as an anthem for the under appreciated service workers. Meanwhile, “Drag A Rake” takes a minor note, contemplating death, with staccato violin licks for emphasis, while maintaining a brooding confidence. The soaring guitar licks of “Trapdoor Spider” subtly recall OK Computer era Radiohead without all of the defeated attitude. In fact, one of the band’s strongest elements is the vocal range of Rogovin, who belts out well controlled melodies with force, ease and a touch of sweetness. One of the most powerful songs on the record is the guy/girl duet, “The Good Book”, one of the bands simpler tunes staging a sonic nostalgia touches on Weezer and a sweet 50’s feel. Lyrically, the guy/girl vocals topple over each other detailing the pitfalls of a breakup. Emotionally, it is one of the more touching psuedo-romantic tunes I have heard since Scout Niblett’s collaboration with Will Oldham.

Overall, Wind Up Wooden Heart is a brilliant debut. It is a distinct effort from a band who has already begun to mature and find their own voice. It can be enjoyed by both music nerds and those who have a soft spot for addictive pop songs. I am excited to see where the band takes their sound next. Social Studies is embarking on a national tour, headed for the coveted CMJ festival in NYC. Check out their tour dates to see when they will be coming to a town near you!