SXSW: Freelance Whales more than a ‘cutesy affectation’ at Frenchkiss show

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New York band Freelance Whales only formed a year and a half ago and already there’s a backlash, with Pitchfork deriding the group as “a cutesy affectation without actual purpose.”

That’s pretty harsh, so Listen, Dammit, decided to see for itself at the Frenchkiss Records showcase Friday at SXSW.

Our conclusion: Lighten up, Pitchfork.

Sure, the band is cutesy, with just-so song arrangements featuring instruments like banjo, harmonium and glockenspiel. But so what? The songs are catchy and the quintet is a strong live act, performing with an air of earnest yearning at the Galaxy Room Backyard, one of nine sets the band played in Austin.

Lead vocalist and guitarist Judah Dadone (above) often sings in plaintive tones, and he dialed in a blorping synthesizer sound on “Hannah” while bassist Doris Cellar added backing vocals and harmonies. She coaxed a reedy sound from the harmonium on “Location” over plinky banjo and contributed vocals along with Dadone, Kevin Read and Chuck Criss.

The combination of synths and pensive lyrics on “Starring” made the song at once dance-friendly and a little downhearted, which isn’t a bad summary of the band’s aesthetic: catchy, poppy songs with wistful undertones.

Freelance Whales last year self-released its debut LP, “Weathervanes,” which gets re-released April 13 on Frenchkiss/Mom & Pop.

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— Text and photo by Eric R. Danton