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Every day this week, Song of the Day is showcasing a track by an artist playing the South by Southwest music festival. For NPR Music's full coverage of SXSW — complete with full-length concerts, studio sessions, blogs, Twitter feeds, video and more — visit npr.org/sxsw. And don't miss our continuous 100-song playlist, The Austin 100, which features much more of the best music the festival has to offer.
Momentum is a tricky thing in songwriting: It takes confidence and craftsmanship to make a song feel as if every second is accomplishing something bigger than the second preceding it, and it usually takes a few minutes for all those layers to fully reveal themselves. We've all heard epic songs unfurl majestically over seven, eight or nine minutes, but it's an even greater accomplishment to achieve that level of drama and discovery almost instantaneously, with no windup or throat-clearing.
At roughly 100 seconds, Now, Now's "Dead Oaks" is an absolute marvel of economy and concision. At first, it feels as if the Minneapolis band has merely taken the first half of a perfect pop song and torn it off like the top of a muffin — where are all the choruses? Isn't there a solo? Shouldn't it fade out at the end? But "Dead Oaks" does everything it should do: It adds small layers of sound, increasingly lush harmonies and ever-richer instrumentation, blooming beautifully before dropping out in gasp-inducing fashion. That's it? Well, yeah.
Fittingly, "Dead Oaks" reveals just a fragment of a story to go with its romantic long-distance longing; just as fittingly, the words imply more than they say. "I can take a thousand miles, and I can drive for hours to your house in the summer," Cacie Dalager sings. "But I could stay for longer if you wanted me to." Her devotion, phrased so casually as an offer, hits as hard as the song's impeccably paced arrangement. Like the song itself, she never wastes a precious breath.
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