If you're in a band and hoping to get discovered, one of the key dates on your professional calendar should be the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference and Festival.

The event has been held in Austin, Texas, every March for more than 15 years, and brings together musicians, record company executives, club owners, radio programmers, journalists, publicists and countless other people working in the music industry. More than a thousand showcasing artists and solo acts from around the globe perform on 50 stages over the course of five nights, next year from March 17 to 21.

Why am I telling you all this?

Applications for musicians to perform at SXSW 2004 are being accepted until Nov. 7 via the Web site at www.sxsw.com, and there is an early application deadline of Oct. 6.

If you are in band playing anything from alternative country or blues to electronica, hip-hop or metal to pop/rock or punk, you should consider attending this event to expand your career horizons. I'm planning to attend the conference again as part of the press to provide a full Pop Stops coverage report in April.


Radiohead - Hail to the Thief Radiohead
Hail to the Thief

Nearly a decade ago, Radiohead released The Bends, one of the most perfect meldings of alternative rock, melody, melancholy and intelligence of the '90s. Since then, however, the band has increasingly eschewed standard pop forms and moved into more experimental territory, exciting critics, if not the pop singles charts, with the albums Kid A and OK Computer, conceptual albums that focused more on creating hypnotic moods than catchy, albeit downbeat melodic rock.

Hail to the Thief follows in the same vein, and, despite a TV ad campaign by its label, seems unlikely to catch the ear of pop radio or widespread acceptance. While the early releases by Radiohead could be described as the work of an alternative rock guitar band, neither rock nor guitars play a central role in the band's sonic creations these days. Electronic percussion and sound loops dominate the landscape of Radiohead now, along with irritatingly repetitive vocals.

The band clearly works in its own world these days, and while some may find its dirgelike tones transcendant, to me, they seem directionless. With the often ambient oscillating electronics, keyboards and warbling, sometimes aimless-sounding vocals by Thom Yorke, this is a good disc to play in the background of a depressing day, but I can't recommend it for much else.


Paloalto - Heroes and Villains Paloalto
Heroes and Villains

Paloalto's members apparently experienced the same moment of frisson as I did when they first heard Radiohead's The Bends, because they've made a career out of exploring the sonic textures suggested by that album. Their self-titled debut in 2000 clearly owed its melancholic but hook-laden appeal to Radiohead, and their latest release, Heroes and Villains, follows the same template.

Opening with the broodingly anthemic marshall-drumming of "The World Outside," Heroes and Villains explores a dozen tapestries of mood and emotion with cool aplomb.

In "Fade Out/In" they up the ante and crank up the guitars to back a prayer of anti-insecurity: "I don't want to fade out/I don't want to fade in/like everything before."

They hit their stride on "Last Way Out of Here," which pairs an achingly plaintive vocal with a slowly building anthem of internal hope: "when all your walls are down/then there's love/it's the last way out of here."

"Last Way" is followed by the easy sing-song beauty of "Breathe In," in which the band suggests that if you feel "stuck in the ground" and "suffocated" that you "breathe in/breathe in/look what's all around you try to steady/it's all you've got."

While the Radiohead comparisons are easy to make on much of Paloalto's material, the band also claims influences from Swervedriver and Catherine Wheel, and the falsettoes and building string arrangements on the affecting "Sleeping Citizens" sound like a lost gem rescued from Silverchair's phenomenal Diorama CD.

Nearly every song on Heroes and Villains taps into the quiet melancholia of a life at a crossroads, while finding at the same time a current of hope and possibility. From broodingly beautiful to poundingly positive, Heroes and Villains reflects both the depth of the human spirit and the emotional power of modern rock. Recommended listening.

Palo Alto will play Chicago's Metro with Rooney on Saturday.