One downside of going to review Lana Del Rey last night was leaving Stereogum’s unofficial SXSW party right when some of the festival’s most exciting new rock bands were coming up. Fortunately, this is SXSW, where exciting new rock bands cram a bazillion shows into four or five days, so I was able to be thrilled by Melkbelly and Charly Bliss at other events this week. The one remaining act on my must-see list going into Saturday was Alex Lahey, the whip-smart Australian indie rocker who we recently named an Artist To Watch. Saturday afternoon at Brooklyn Vegan’s day party, the watching finally commenced.
This was the last set of a marathon week, but rather than tiring out Lahey and her band, all those gigs seemed to have sharpened them into a well-rehearsed unit. They burned through each song with a casual ease, forceful without ever tipping over into punk-rock intensity. At their core Lahey’s songs are built from clever lyrics set to sneakily catchy melodies against a simple array of guitar chords — pop-rock by the basics, in other words. But each of those components fits in exactly the right place, and Lahey expands upon them with arrangements that add just enough seasoning without getting in the way. It is a classic not-reinventing-the-wheel scenario, played to near-perfection by a talented songwriter with a compelling point of view.
Their first two songs highlighted the guitar interplay between Lahey and Sam Humphrey. On “Wes Anderson,” Humphrey’s subtle slide guitar work helped a starry-eyed love song achieve liftoff. Then, on “Ivy League,” self-taught guitarist Lahey took the lead with some less conventional six-string spasms. It reminded me of the tradeoff in Wilco between Nels Cline’s studied precision and Jeff Tweedy’s more rambunctious outbursts, only in this case the lead work was tucked into concise little pop songs rather than sprawling jam sessions.
A series of new tracks in the middle of the set heightened my anticipation for Lahey’s in-progress Dead Oceans debut. On “Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Lahey lamented a breakup in the Western Australian city; its title would not be the last instance of Lahey inflecting emotional tumult with some comic relief. “I Haven’t Been Taking Care Of Myself” began with her wondering aloud, “Is this blood on my dress or is it just red wine?” and ended with a surprise gang sing-along that elevated the song to rhapsodic heights. Another big finish boosted “I Want Ü” — “like Justin Bieber’s doing it now. It’s called an umlaut, the dots. I don’t know if Justin knows that, but I know it.”
These new tracks had a pleasing early Strokes vibe — strong, swinging rhythm sections and interlocking guitar chords galore — but filtered through Lahey’s personal aesthetic. As she worked her way through a quick 30-minute set, I was continually impressed by her ability to find new life in old fundamentals. Her songs benefit from the musicality of a band geek (which she was) and the wit of a comic actress (which she could be), and apparently that’s all it takes to make tunes like “Let’s Go Out” and “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me” hit like anthems in real life. That sort of alchemy is the mark of a gifted songwriter who hopefully has many more hits left to write.