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Best of SXSW 2012, Wednesday: Fiona Apple, Zola Jesus, High on Fire

Fiona Apple / Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

Fiona Apple: There’s always talk of how much Lady Gaga borrows from Madonna, but her secret soul sister has always been fellow piano pounder Fiona Apple. Returning after a lengthy break following 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, the now-34-year-old Apple looks and sounds ready to be the Queen of Pain again. Curiously opening (rather than headlining) NPR’s showcase at Stubb’s, Apple stood with her eyes cast upward and mouth agape, slammed her keys on the upbeats, and peeled off a bit of nonsensical banter between songs (“You’re imaginary! You’re not real!”). She played percussion on unusually structured new song “Anything We Want” with a skeletally skinny arm, while an upright bass gave fresh tune “Valentine” a jazzy vibe. Plucky “Extraordinary Machine” sounded like it could have been streaming through the double gramophones sitting at the top of the stage, but her guitarist spent most of the night doodling away with his rig set to “Trey Anastasio.” The band got weighty when they needed to, digging in deep for a tight, bright version of “Criminal” near the end. And like she did all night, Fiona wailed and shrieked with a gritty power that originated somewhere in her tiny, tormented gut. CARYN GANZ

Zola Jesus: This is one intense young woman. Clad all in white while her backing keyboardist, violinist, and drummer were decked out in black at Elysium. Jesus danced like a devil was leaving her body, twitching and thrashing, and singing like an avenging angel. Her voice was amazing, losing absolutely none of its mesmerizing on-record strength. Going low or high, its sound is full and resonant, with a fierce, strident timbre. Hearing her belt out the sneakily poppy, gothy synth-rock selections from last year’s breakthrough Conatus, it’s hard to understand why only M83’s Anthony Gonzalez has seen fit to use her as a home-run ready vocal pinch-hitter, as he did on his band’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. And seeing her down on the floor wailing and shaking, a rapt crowd straining to touch her, it’s easy to imagine her dark star continuing to rise. DAVID MARCHESE

High on Fire: Over a decade into its bludgeoning, smoked-out existence, Matt Pike’s ferocious stoner-metal trio has reached a kind of Platonic ideal of heaviness. Playing the patio at Barbarella’s well after midnight, the band pounded out one perfect jam after another. Pike’s down-tuned riffing and frenetic soloing, Jeff Matz’s brontosaurus stomp bass, Des Kensel’s booming drums — you listen and can’t figure out what could change to make these sounds heavier, more menacing, or more intense. Even on the small handful of songs from the band’s upcoming De Vermis Mysteriis, the Bay Area bruisers attained the single-minded perfection of Motörhead, AC/DC, or the Ramones. Do all the songs sound kind of the same? Yes. Do you wonder if the band might not be capable of doing anything else? Sure. Does it matter? Hell no. DM

Purity Ring: This young and spooky Canadian synth-pop duo are, like, 88 percent of the way to doing something amazing. Vocalist Megan James and beatmaker Corin Roddick’s ethereal, entrancing songs are built on phantasmal wisps of melody and skeletal, whomping beats. During the band’s post-1-a.m. set at the Chevrolet Sound Garage, sticky, chopped-and-screwed jams like “Lofticries” sounded as if they’d been assembled from rusty shards of lost radio hits. A half-dozen or so synths that light up like glowing orbs when Roddick touched them added to the ghostly ambience, though it took a mighty long while for the dude to get them working properly. There’s still just a hint of reticence holding back the performance and music. In time, that’ll go away. DM

Bahamas: Afie Jurvanen took the pulpit (it isn’t really a stage) at St. David’s Church (it is really a church) backed by a drummer and a duo of singers in matching, shimmery blue dresses he later praised as a “wise decision.” The Canadian musician, who’s done time as a journeyman guitarist for Feist, cut a Ritchie Valens-esque silhouette and went for a few cheap laughs (“Lionel Richie is playing tonight, too — all night long, apparently”), but his extraordinarily deft guitar playing carried the night. His licks ranged from mellifluous to the kind of blues that could turn Jack White’s head from 1,000 feet. He wrapped on a ’50s style ballad called “Snow Plow” and the audience rose to their feet. Hallelujah. CG

Kindness: There is something charming about when white English people try and get funky. Last night at the Chevrolet Sound Garage, the appealing underlying goofiness in mainman Adam Bainbridge’s disco-ball jams shone through. (He clearly comes out of the same slickly awkward rhythm-pop lineage as his Brit forebears ABC and late-era Roxy Music.) Bainbridge resembles a long-haired twig, but then goes for these tricky soul-man vocal runs. The band’s bass lines are cartoonishly big and fat and rubbery, but paired with lush, lithe vocal melodies, often sung by two honey-voiced backing singers dancing in unison. Even confidence-wise the dude seems a bit askew, opening the show by snidely saying, “Greetings, corporate overlords,” then dancing as if he was alone in his bedroom in front of a mirror. Without that lingering sense of unease, songs such as “Cyan,” from the band’s upcoming debut, World You Need A Change of Mine, might come off too conceptual, too studied. Instead, they’re danceable gems with heart. Which is exactly what the Replacements’ “Swinging Party” turned into when Kindness covered it mid-way through their set. DM