Tonight, three finalists will face off at Mill City Nights for the latest installment of Vita.mn’s Are You Local?, an annual showcase and competition that aims to turn over new talent and send an undiscovered band to SXSW. This year, Vita.mn received 223 submissions for their contest, and ended up selecting two brand new indie rock bands—Carroll and Bad Bad Hats—plus hip-hop collective Audio Perm, who were one of the finalists in last year’s issue of Picked to Click.
While it’s cool to see a band hitching a free ride to SXSW with this contest, I selfishly look forward to it each year because it makes my job (which consists largely of sifting through new music and finding the best acts to introduce to listeners and readers) incredibly easy. Each spring, new baby bands seem to crop up across the state like little chickadees ready to hatch, and the Are You Local? submissions page ends up being a really convenient way to sample a lot of those chickadees in one sitting. Or, in this case, about seven sittings; 223 is a lot!
Before I get to my favorites, I want to make a few notes about how I listen, and what stands out to me when I’m listening to music “blind” or with very little background information and context to inform my opinion. For me, probably the biggest factor in deciding whether to explore an act further is the production of the track; it makes sense that bands would submit demos for this kind of contest, since many are so new that they haven’t had time to record a proper album, but it really makes it difficult to suss out a group’s full potential when the recording isn’t up to par. Another make-or-break factor for me is the vocals. I can’t tell you how many songs I wanted to skip immediately just because the lead vocals were out of tune or simply lacking in one way or another.
And finally—and this is my own bias more than an objective tool for measurement—I’ve gotten quite burnt out on the whole indie-folk/banjo-heavy sound lately, so for an act from that genre to really grab my attention they had to have extra strong lyrics and composition. That part of my taste is fluctuating all the time, of course, but there you have it.
I also wanted to point out that I’m not including any acts that have been featured prominently on this blog or on the Local Show. So you won’t find your Actual Wolfs, your Black Church Services, your Eleganzas and Usonias. But you will find a handful of new-to-me acts that have been simmering under the surface for a few years and could use a fresh look, along with plenty of shiny new groups.
Brand new acts to keep an eye on:
Sans Caballo: One of my favorite new discoveries from this year’s contest. I literally know nothing about Sans Caballo other than a description on their page that says, “Cryogenically frozen since ’77 when rock didn’t need us. Thawed last Thursday.” Also, I stumbled on this bizarre video. More please.
K. Bestia: Mellow, emotive folk music in the vein of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, courtesy of new singer-songwriter Keaton Kronberg. Kronberg started working on his K. Bestia project in 2011, and has just started playing out more and recording his songs.
Moon and Pollution: A collaboration so new that their only web presence is their Are You Local? submission page. Entrancing, down-tempo trip hop featuring vocalist Molly Dean and producer Graham O’Brien (No Bird Sing).
Breakfast Anytime: This throwback synth-pop group just released their first EP earlier this month.
Bigtree Bonsai: I’ve been starved for music with grit and teeth lately, and this track by Bigtree Bonsai appealed to me right away for that reason. They’re a little country, a little blues, a little stomp-y, but not in a contrived way. I definitely want to check these guys out live.
Wild Cathedral: This duo defines their sound as “ghastly party music,” but I’m hearing influences from all over the place—a little Black Keys, a little Petty, maybe some Flaming Lips? They only have two tracks up on their Bandcamp right now, and I want to hear more.
Common Labor: If Mason Jennings was a rapper, it might sound something like this? Screw all the genres and categories; Common Labor doesn’t quite fit any description I might write here. This song makes me smile.
Geodesique: This new electro/trip-hop/goth pop trio is so prolific that they’ve already put out two full albums and a couple of EPs worth of material since forming late last year. Their music is mostly instrumental at this point, but the few vocals they’ve sprinkled in to tracks like “Silent Breath” are mesmerizing.
Brüder: I’ve actually seen these guys live once already, and think they have a really strong, polished sound for being so new and so young. Recommended for fans of Bloodnstuff, Black Sabbath, etc.
Whistle Kid: I first came across this band when we were putting together our high school edition of the Local Show last fall. Now that I’ve stumbled on them again, it’s worth giving them a closer look.
Medical Equipment: A psych rock duo who sound like their key influence was listening to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” on repeat. With only one track out, I’m curious to see what else they have to offer.
Stacy K: Breathy, gauzy, moody pop. Stacy’s K’s first record is due out March 8, and you can already stream the whole thing online.
The Golden Bubbles: A ’70s throwback band looking to reinvent disco and funk for the iPod generation. Their debut record came out late last year and was produced by Ryan Olcott, and should appeal to fans of early Vicious Vicious.
Duenday: A south Minneapolis rapper whose latest record, Good Problems, just dropped this month. His flow grabbed my attention immediately.
Fury Things: This band pays tribute to the earliest days of indie rock—Archers of Loaf, Pavement, Sonic Youth. It’s fuzzy and hooky and wonderful.
MS-BOSS: I’m really digging the layers and the vocals on this new project, which actually reminds me quite a bit of the new Van Stee record that’s out this week.
Chants and Seas: This one caught me ear right away, especially the female vocalist’s bewitching voice. They only have one track available online, and it’s not enough!
Slept-on mainstays who deserve a fresh look:
Street Hassle: Though they’ve been rehearsing and gigging around town since 1999, garage rock-meets-power pop band Street Hassle just got around to recording and releasing their debut, Feeling Machine, this year. It’s lo-fi, scuzzy, and, above all else, surprisingly catchy.
See More Perspective: I was drawn to this track simply for the twisted boombap beat, but after digging further into See More Perspective’s extensive catalog I’m wondering just how I got this far without listening his work. Highly recommended for fans of early Atmosphere, classic soul, and beats made for driving with the windows down and the subwoofer cranked.
Sarah Krueger: According to her site, Krueger is an “Eau Claire-bred, Duluth-built” singer-songwriter who put out her latest full-length, Dancing with Phantoms, in 2011. How this slipped past us here in the Twin Cities, I’ll never know. Krueger’s voice and sense of melody are strong, and her band fleshes out her tunes in a style reminiscent of the new Ericksons record.
Toussaint Morrison and Dr. Wylie: I’ve been following Toussaint for a while now, and for whatever reason he doesn’t seem to get the same level of attention as the “conscious” hip-hop artists that are so popular in this town. After sharpening his skills in the Blend and Lazlo Supreme, Toussaint put out a fun, sample-heavy record last year with producer Dr. Wylie that shows off his singing chops as well as his rapping. This track, “Can’t Relive the Party,” should appeal to fans of Mayor Hawthorne and that new song “Suit and Tie” from Justin Timberlake.