Even before I managed to catch Now, Now at SXSW, the band’s fantastic record Threads was already on constant rotation. The Minneapolis trio — comprised of Cacie Dalager, Jess Abbott, and Bradley Hale — found the right recipe for songs that straddle fizzy power pop hooks and lush, yet disarming layers of sound — all while singing about some big universal themes sparked from quiet but deeply personal moments. In “Thread” and “But I Do” Dalager’s lyrics capture a sense of unreturned love and the fragility of relationships unraveling not all at once but one stitch at a time. Elsewhere, in songs like “School Friends” and “Separate Rooms” she sings of insomnia, and the confusing, often phantom limb feelings that still linger when seeing a former love and not knowing where things stand. Ultimately, it’s Now, Now’s live show — even in a half-full converted bar — that made this band’s taut, infectious melodies come to life. This band is one of the most confident and exciting new acts of the year.
Patrick Watson’s deeply emotional and joyful midnight performance at St. David’s Episcopal Church has stuck with me more than any at this year’s South By Southwest. This beautiful sanctuary, lit from above by strings of Edison light bulbs, was the perfect setting for Watson’s imaginative and timeless chamber pop from this year’s masterful Adventures In Your Own Backyard. But near the end of the set, the singer and his band gathered in the aisle between church pews to do single mic renditions of “Into Giants” and “Words In The Fire,” — a stirring song about finding happiness living in the present. Sitting next to so many close friends, it was hard not to get caught up in that moment and realize how lucky we were to witness this special show. I still get choked up every time I put on “Words In The Fire.”
Many songwriters have mulled over the rootlessness of their youth, but few describe it with as much whip-smart and wistful sentiment as Hospitality’s Amber Papini does. Hospitality’s very fine debut is full of well-crafted songs such as “Eighth Avenue” and “Liberal Arts” that serve as intimate snapshots of living in New York City and the complicated feelings that come with transition. But “Argonauts” is the standout, for its lovely depiction of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol for the promise of reinvention and searching a new direction. This year saw so many songs that charted new ground, were perhaps more innovative, or took on weightier topics. But for me, “Argonauts” hit a certain joyful and sweet tone that I kept returning to again and again in 2012.