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January 2009 Archives

Handicapping the 2008 Grammys

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When the 51st annual Grammy Awards are telecast live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles starting at 7 p.m. next Sunday on WBBM-TV/Ch. 2, the only thing that's certain is that many of the predictions made by critics and handicappers will be wrong.

As I note every year at this time, awards sponsors the Recording Academy are such a large, diverse and sometimes clueless group of music-business professionals with so many competing political and inside-industry agendas that getting an accurate read of who'll take home the golden gramophones is about a thousand times harder than predicting Chicago's weather.
Nevertheless, perhaps because my editors love to see me try and fail, here once again is a look at this year's "Big Four" categories, with my game but no doubt flawed thoughts on who may claim these coveted prizes.

Chicago's Grammy-nominated producer Johnny K

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For people in the business of recording music, there are few greater honors than a Grammy nomination for producer of the year, especially when they find themselves on a list that also includes Rick Rubin (who got the nod for working on 2008 releases by Metallica, Neil Diamond and Weezer), Nigel Godrich (Radiohead), Danger Mouse (the Black Keys, Beck and Gnarls Barkley) and will.i.am (Estelle, Sergio Mendes, Usher, Chris Brown and Fergie).

"It came as quite a surprise," says South Side native John Karkazis, better known on the rock scene as Johnny K, the producer listed on recent albums by the Plain White T's, Staind, Black Tide and 3 Doors Down. "I mean, I knew I had a good year, and I was excited and proud of the work I did. But when I got the text message [about the nomination], I remember looking down the list at the other producers and thinking, 'I had some good records, but... oh, man!'"

JohnnyK

Livin' loud with Les Savy Fav

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When Brooklyn art-punks Les Savy Fav appeared at the first Intonation Music Festival in 2005, the crowd nearly surged out of control, thanks as much to the amphetamine overdrive of the music as to the wild antics of vocalist Tim Harrington, who spent much of the show naked and running through the crowd.

It seemed like a hard act to top, but the group didn't disappoint when it returned to the rechristened Pitchfork Fest last summer. This time, Harrington rolled in the mud and hopped inside a garbage barrel that fans hoisted up and passed through the crowd. For the climax, he donned a flesh-colored body suit with his internal organs drawn on it and led the crowd in a chant of "This is my body/This is what it does/I try to make it better/But I know it's gonna bust."

All of this was more effective for the fact that Harrington is a pudgy, bald, bearded and otherwise delightfully mild-mannered fellow who looks more like a mathematics professor than a punk-rock front man. In fact, he holds two day jobs, one as a graphics artist for VH1 and the other as co-founder with his wife of the way-cooler-than-Ikea home design company Deadly Squire.

sp : JT

Riding high on the release of their strongest album yet, "Freedom Metal," Chicago's (choose one) smartest metalheads/most lucid stoner-rockers Bible of the Devil take the stage Saturday night at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, following opening sets by the mighty Beatallica, Admiral of Black and Thistles and Thorns starting at 8 p.m. The over is $8; for more information, call (773) 489-3160 or visit www.doubledoor.com.

It might still seem as if the '90s only ended yesterday, but the recent flowering of alternative nostalgia is in full bloom, and the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, is taking full advantage with "Seattle Grunge Night" starting at 9 p.m. Friday. Performers include Nevermind (a tribute to Nirvana), Given2Fly (a Pearl Jam cover band) and Angry Chair (a group that pays homage to Alice in Chains), and tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door. For more info, call (773) 478-4408 or visit www.abbeypub.com

Animal Collective at Metro

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Given that they share similar anti-corporate business ethics, if very different musical aesthetics, it's surprising that it has taken so long to see a successful union of the jam-band, electronic-dance and indie-rock undergrounds.

Until recently, Animal Collective, the Baltimore-to-Brooklyn transplants who've bridged the gaps to bring those worlds together, have been stronger as an ideal than as actual art. The group's live shows, including a high-profile headlining gig at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival, were more notable for their Pink Floyd-worthy lighting displays than for free-flowing sounds that, at their worst, devolved into hippies-with-bongos arrhythmic clatter--a hipster version of the Grateful Dead's dreaded "Drums and Space" wank-fests.

Meanwhile, though the band's prolific recordings often had moments of promise, those were outnumbered by the bouts of unfocused over-indulgence. But on "Merriweather Post Pavilion," the group's ninth studio album released on Tuesday, the newly pared-down trio of the trippily named Avey Tare (a.k.a. Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) sobered up long enough to polish and perfect their song craft, yielding a psychedeli-pop masterpiece winning praise from every corner as an irresistibly sunny idyll in ever darkening times.

Just as exciting, this new concision and welcome emphasis on infectious melodies and more propulsive rhythms also were in evidence when the group took the stage Thursday night at Metro before a sold-out crowd of worshipful fans, including quite a few who were living embodiments of the band's musical mergers. (Think indie/emo geeks sporting hippie dreadlocks and Day-Glo raver face paint.)

You can consider it retro-metal. You can deem it stoner rock. You can say that it's doom, or any of half a dozen other subgenres that metalheads fervidly debate.

Whatever you want to call it, there's no denying that the Austin, TX, quartet the Sword is one of the hardest-hitting but most melodic groups making heavy music today.

"I suppose it kind of helps when you're starting a band to have a definite direction and focus so you're just not flailing away," guitarist-vocalist J.D. Cronise says of metal's fondness for genre-typing. "If you have too many options, it's hard to choose one, so it kind of helps to be a little narrower when you begin, and then you can kind of expand from that.

"When we started, I think it definitely was much more about being heavy: I think I would have called it doom metal, even though doom is traditionally considered to be slow in tempo. But I think that's one of the shortcomings of the metal genre: It's always trying to define itself. To me, you listen to the music; if it moves you, it's good, and if it doesn't, you listen to something else. I listen to what I consider to be good music; I read what I consider to be good books. That doesn't necessarily preclude any genre."

Much is being made of the relative speed with which the Boss is following up his last album with the E Street Band, released in September 2007. "During the last weeks of mixing 'Magic,' we recorded a song called 'What Love Can Do,'" Springsteen wrote in a message posted on his Web site late last year. "It was sort of a 'love in the time of Bush' meditation. It was a great track but felt more like a first song of a new record rather than something that would fit on 'Magic.' So our producer Brendan O'Brien said, 'Hey, let's make another one right now!'

"I thought, no, I haven't done that since my first two records came out in the same year. And usually I don't write that quickly. But that night I went back to my hotel in Atlanta and over the next week, I wrote several songs ('This Life,' 'My Lucky Day,' 'Life Itself,' along with 'Good Eye' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows') that formed the beginnings of our new album. Excited by the sounds we made on 'Magic,' I found there was more than enough fuel for the fire to keep going."

Ah, Bruce, you make it all sound so easy and old-school garage-rock, if not exactly fuel-efficient in these eco-conscious times. And maybe it really was that simple, though the marketing campaign that will usher "Working on a Dream" into record stores Tuesday following several weeks of carefully planned Internet leaks has been as sophisticated a "shock and awe" blitz as a dying major label can still muster, neatly incorporating the buzz behind "The Wrestler" (the track Bruce croaks over the closing credits to Mickey Rourke's comeback is tacked on as a bonus track), all of those appearances in support of then President-elect Obama (nice timing!) and of course the max-hype gig of all time, at half-time during the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.

Andrew Bird, "Noble Beast" (Fat Possum) [2 STARS]

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A funny thing happened to Chicago singer, songwriter, violin virtuoso and whistler nonpareil Andrew Bird on the way to recording his fifth studio solo album: Seemingly dedicated to hiding in the margins with the odd mix of old-time jazz, Brechtian cabaret and gypsy blues that characterized his early releases, he somehow morphed into a very Public Radio-friendly pop star and super-geek sex symbol, selling more than 100,000 copies of his last disc "Armchair Apocrypha" (2007) and becoming the SAT high-scorers' answer to Ben Folds or a straighter (in every sense of the word) Rufus Wainwright.

As Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten recently put it in a fawning New York Times profile of the artist, "When Andrew plays [here,] we can squeeze in a lot more [people] because so many of them are skinny girls with glasses."

Demo2DeRo: Band Called Catch

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Lighthearted, good-humored acoustic rock is a surprisingly dangerous genre to mess with: It's all too easy to sail off the edge into shtick. Thankfully, despite the silly name, there's more Violent Femmes in the form of undeniably strong pop songwriting and genuinely witty lyrics with Band Called Catch than there is shameless shucking and jiving a la, say, the Barenaked Ladies. Witness "Girl Gone Wild," the first track on the band's Web site, www.myspace.com/bandcalledcatch.

"She said you should do anything to be a rock star/Because I'd do anything to be a porno star," guitarist, vocalist and bandleader Tim Frank sings. "She took all of her clothes off for one of them free T-shirts/And look at her now, look at her now, look at her now/Her father must be proud."

Formed by Frank in early 2008 and completed by bassist Blake Wells, lead guitarist Doug Waxman, drummer Eli P and the honey-voiced backing vocalist Jessica Lyons, Band Called Catch can't be faulted for a lack of productivity: In its short time together, it's written a handful of songs as memorable as "Girl Gone Wild" (including "Far Away Girl" and "Riccis Girl") and filmed an impressively edited and very Chicago-centric video for "Green Light."

The group will be marking its one-year anniversary on Friday, Jan. 30, with a show at the Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln. (The cover is $9.) Help these funny folkies celebrate, and cheer 'em on to another 365 days as tuneful as the ones just passed.

When it burst onto the U.S. music scene in 2004 with a seriously groovy self-titled debut peppered with party-starting singles such as "Take Me Out," the Scottish quartet Franz Ferdinand dwarfed the other "New Wave of New Wave" dance bands repackaging '80s sounds with modern-rock guitars for a new generation: It was smarter, sassier, sexier and much more musically ambitious than the likes of Interpol and Hot Hot Heat. Yet for its second act, "You Could Have It So Much Better" (2005), the band offered more of the same but with less energy and fewer hooks, and it was soon overshadowed by LCD Soundsystem in terms of musical invention and by the Killers in the realm of popular acclaim.

Now, after a long absence from the spotlight interrupted only by the publication of main man Alex Kapranos' amusing 2006 culinary travelogue Sound Bites: Eating on Tour with Franz Ferdinand, the band finally has made a worthy follow-up to its initial bow. The best moments on "Tonight: Franz Ferdinand" don't alter the formula much: The opening "Ulysses" is all about imagining a New Order bass line played by Bootsy Collins; "No You Girls" is one of several unapologetically retro-disco thumpers, and "What She Came For" tries to get listeners to do the robot with a long but hypnotic Krautrock coda. But the rhythms and melodies are much stronger than last time, and Kapranos' sad-sack Bryan Ferry routine is endlessly amusing.

"I typed your number into my calculator/Where it spelled a dirty word when you turned it upside down," the low-budget lothario sings in "Twilight Omens." But his come-ons come to naught: "I wrote your name upon the back of my hand/Slept upon it and I woke up with it backwards on my face."

Franz Ferdinand may not be having much luck after last call, but on the dance floor, it's got its mojo back once again.

Demo2DeRo: ARMA

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Formed last year on the West side of Chicago by vocalist Taylor Brennan, guitarist Alejandro Guzman, bassist Mike Cali and drummer Ben Ludwig, ARMA doesn't have much to say by way of hyping itself: The band hasn't even bothered to post a bio on its Web site (www.myspace.com/armamusic), and its members aren't much more loquacious in emails. But they don't really have to be when they have songs as strong as "Metropolis" and "Believe" from their recent self-titled EP.

With its fluid and sometimes trippy grooves, the group clearly draws inspiration from some of the best nu-metal bands, heavy on the Incubus and Deftones. But the band adds the occasional flash of more old-school metal fire and brimstone, and it's an intriguing mix that's already landing the group some impressive gigs: It performs at Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, and at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, on Feb. 5.

This weekend: The Musical Box and Taylor Hicks

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As tribute bands go, it's hard to think of one that has set its heights higher than the Music Box, the touring act dedicated to insanely accurate musical and visual recreations of vintage Genesis (the complex, ambitious but gorgeously melodic progressive rock band of the '70s, as opposed to the later hit-makers). This time through, the band is offering a simulacrum of "A Trick of the Tail," the first post-Peter Gabriel album, at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield. The show starts at 7:30 tonight and again tomorrow, and tickets are $43.50. Call (773) 472-0449.

Poor Taylor Hicks: The silver-haired Everyman with the golden voice seemed to hold the world in his hand after winning the fifth season of "American Idol" in 2006. Now he's just another musician struggling on tour and recently dumped by his major label, Arista Records. Nevertheless, the Soul Patrol, his dedicated legion of fans, will likely be out in force when he takes the stage at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln, at 10 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $40 via Ticketmaster, (312) 559-1212 or www.ticketmaster.com.

Talking with Adele: Simply amazing

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When an artist as young as 20-year-old Adele Laurie Blue Adkins emerges with a voice so soulful, powerful and resonant of some of the greats in R&B history, you can't help but wonder how she developed such deep musical roots.

As with many aspects of the Londoner's red-hot career, the answer is surprising.

"My cousin Gemma is a hairdresser, and when she was studying it, I used to be her hair model. I've got so much hair; I've got the biggest hair in the world!" Adele says in a typically ebullient rush of words. "She kept doing these hairstyles, and I was like, 'No, I don't like them.' I used to go to these hair-styling shows with her as her hair model, and I'd be embarrassed when the judges were walking around and I had these rubbish, normal hairstyles. I was like, 'I've got to find something!'"

So Adele went to a record store and started scouring old LP covers in search of inspiration. "I saw Etta James' bleached-blonde hair and big catty eyes, and I saw Ella Fitzgerald's primped '40s hair, and I just fell in love with them! So I bought these albums--they were like two for five pounds in a bargain bin--and they were amazing. I had heard of Ella Fitzgerald, but I'd never even heard of Etta James. But I bought these records and never even gave them to my cousin, because when I heard Etta James, it was like my life was over. She's amazing!"

The four whimsical Baltimore-to-Brooklyn transplants of Animal Collective have been building a dedicated following since early in the new millennium, establishing themselves as the jam band indie hipsters can love even as the group has chaffed at that description. "A lot of times you hear the words 'jam bands' and you think Phish or something like that," bandleader Avey Tare (a.k.a. Dave Portner) told me in 2006. "We reached a point where we improvised a lot over long periods of time together, just sitting in our apartments and making stuff up on the spot. But at the same time, we were thinking, 'How can we incorporate more of a song structure in this so we won't always have to rely on improvisation?'"

Good question. Despite that goal--and the band's hero worship of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd--its prolific output has been frustratingly inconsistent: For every moment of pure psychedelic-pop bliss, there's been an unfocused and uninteresting detour into that dreaded Phish murk. But on their ninth studio album, Portner, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) pare down to a trio--Josh Dibb, a.k.a. Deakin, is taking a leave of absence--and they concentrate on the songwriting without losing any of the trippy sonic playfulness of the past.

Ron Asheton, R.I.P.

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The term "godfather of punk" is one that's too often abused: The genre can't possibly have had 189,958 progenitors, could it? And bandying it about too lightly only cheapens it when referring to a musician for whom that really was the case.

As reported by the Detroit Free Press, Ron Asheton, who founded the Stooges with singer Iggy Pop and was one of a half-dozen players who defined what punk-rock guitar could and should be, was found dead in his home in Ann Arbor, MI, Tuesday morning. He was 60 years old.

I last spoke to Asheton circa the Stooges reunion in 2007, but we first connected in the late '90s when I was researching the roots of punk in Detroit for Let It Blurt, my biography of rock critic Lester Bangs. The two were friends and mutual admirers, and it seems fitting to give Lester the last word on Asheton's enduring contribution to music, to culture and most of all to punk. From "Roots of Punk (Part One)" in New Wave magazine, 1978:

"'1969'" featured the only use of wah-wah that I had ever liked on any record (mainly because Ron Asheton didn't do anything with it, no flash bulls---, he just blanged out a chord and let the technology play its own self), and most importantly of all, THAT HE AND IGGY DIDN'T GIVE A S--- ABOUT ANYTHING AND NEITHER DID WE. We knew that over in Michigan his lifestyle was identical to ours, just getting f---ed up all the time and trying to find the girls who'd f--- us and usually failing. F--- the establishment, f--- the counterculture, f--- the Beatles after that white atrocity, f--- rock 'n' roll for that matter, everybody being so goddam protective about it like it was some sickly child or something, f--- the government and f--- the war and f--- the college and f--- the hippies and f--- everything. F--- you. I'm f---ed up already. Listen, when one of your best friends is slumped in your room stoned just this side of death on Seconals, drooling on himself and mumbling "I dunno, man, lately I think I been turnin' into a vegetable..." you really don't want to listen to Abbey Road, much less "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," a title I can't even type without sneering.

Thanks, Ron, for giving us an alternative.

Demo2DeRo: Zerostars

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A band is setting its sights pretty high when it lists its primary inspirations as those erudite pop sociologists Ray Davies and Morrissey. But if Chicago's Zerostars don't quite reach that bar yet in terms of witty lyricism--"You ask me how I feel/Well I don't know" the band sings in "Driving to New Orleans," falling a bit short of "David Watts" or "Hairdresser on Fire"--their newly issued debut album "Basement Stories" offers ample evidence that they eventually could get there, especially given the strength of their lilting rhythms and airy melodies.

Formed in 2001, the band made its recorded debut with a six-song EP called "The Good Can't Escape." Guitarist-vocalist Jason Moody, guitarist Mikey Shin and bassist Scott Kallstrand spent two years recording the follow-up as Kill Hannah veteran Garret Hammond filled in on drums, co-engineered and co-produced, and the effort pays off via with the exquisite sound of standout tracks such as the rollicking, horns-laced "Like the Daylights" and the dynamically shifting epic "Family Tree." Both are featured on the band's Web site at http://www.myspace.com/heyzerostars, or you can catch the band live on Wednesday, Jan. 7, at Subterranean, 2011 W North Ave.

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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