Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

October 2009 Archives

Bob Dylan at the Aragon

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Though it cannot be denied that Bob Dylan is a living treasure and one of the most important and influential figures in the history of American song craft, the 68-year-old legend recently released a strong contender for the worst album of his storied career, "Christmas in the Heart."

It may have been a noble effort to raise money for charity. But the new disc of massacred holiday standards is nonetheless a miserable listening experience.

Thankfully, there wasn't a harsh, croaking rendition of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," an endless, torturous version of "Little Drummer Boy" or a weird threat-not-a promise take on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in evidence Thursday night as the favorite son of Hibbing, Minn., played the first of a three-night stand at the Aragon Ballroom.

In fact, in his patently perverse, willfully noncommercial, change-it-up-every-night and "zag whenever they expect me to zig" style, Dylan completely ignored his new album. Instead, the man whose taped introduction branded him "the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll" gave us a typically atypical night, mixing a heavy sampling of songs from the last three studio albums before "Christmas in the Heart" with a handful of his most memorable anthems.

As usual, many of these songs were barely recognizable, as Dylan shuffled, rewrote, rearranged and just plain messed with them however the spirit of the moment struck him.

One notable failure: A particularly unsubtle and heavy-handed thrashing of "Just Like a Woman," part of a generally sluggish start to the two-hour show. (Dylan began promptly at 7:30 p.m., and there was no opening act.)

Among the standout high points: a revved-up "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"; "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," which was turned inside out and upside down; a rollicking and rambunctious "Highway 61 Revisited," and a tense and dramatic "Ain't Talkin'."

After a particularly inspired and reliably consistent stretch in the '90s, when his shows were marked by their furious guitar rave-ups and intense interaction with his crack band, Dylan's concerts have become much more uneven and sluggish in recent years. The star has spent much of his time onstage rigidly standing behind an electronic keyboard, reportedly because arthritis has made his guitar playing more difficult.

And the voice... oh, that voice. Even though of us who've applauded its harsh punk charms, forgiven its infamous limitations and championed it as a direct conduit to the songwriter's soul must admit that it's becoming ever harsher, more limited and sloppier, without an appreciable increase in soulfulness.

The current tour marks the return of Austin, TX, guitarist Charlie Sexton, one of Dylan's best ever sidemen, and a big reason why those '90s shows were so fiery. But the bandleader still spent much of Thursday night behind that dreaded synthesizer. When he did don a guitar, he hardly moved and barely acknowledged Sexton, second guitarist Stu Kimball and bassist Tony Garnier at his right side, much less drummer George Recile behind him.

Indeed, the only time Dylan seemed undiminished was when he blowing harp. His harmonica propelled "Ballad of a Thin Man," the last song before the encore, and the evening's climax.

Overall, this was a better night with Bob than the last few this critic has had, but it was far from the best.

The most hardcore fans will contend that any night with their hero is a privilege mere mortals should gratefully welcome without complaints. But I bet that even many of them are glad to have been spared his particularly unique reading of "Winter Wonderland."

South by Southwest Chicago mixer, Nov. 10

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Sure, March 17 to 21 still seems a ways off. But it's never too early for local musicians, indie business folks and fans to start thinking about the South by Southwest Music Festival, the music industry's largest annual gathering, and those are the dates when it will descend on Austin, TX, in 2010.

Meanwhile, festival promoters are holding a "SXSW Music Mixer party" on Tuesday, Nov. 10, at the Hideout, 1354 West Wabansia, from 6 to 8 p.m. According to the SXSW release:

"Staffers from the music conference, festival and sales departments will be on hand to discuss SXSW 10's new features. We'll be giving away a SXSW Music badge to a lucky contest winner, so bring your business card to drop in the fishbowl. Space and free beverages are limited, so RSVP now to!"


One of the most exciting bands to emerge in the new millennium, the Strokes have spent much of the time since their 2001 debut "Is This It" lowering the expectations set by that classically New York, Velvet Underground-influenced explosion of droning melodies, speed-fueled guitars and runaway subway train rhythms. "Room on Fire" (2003) and "First Impressions of Earth" (2006) were hardly dismal efforts, but neither expanded the basic formula the way the Velvets continually stretched the boundaries of their sound, and the wait for album number four has officially grown interminable as band members are torn by the constant distractions of various solo projects.

Now the group's voice, primary songwriter and laidback if undeniable leader has given us his solo bow, a concise, eight-track, 40-minute set that takes its name from an Oscar Wilde essay ("Phrases and Philosophies for Use of the Young") and which veers far and wide for the sort of stylistic diversity sorely missing in the Strokes. Unfortunately, the results only make a fan miss that band more.

Julian Casablancas' delightfully laconic vocals remain as appealing as ever, and he still flaunts an unerring ear for hooks so casual and seemingly effortless you forget how infectious they are. These talents shine on the opening "Out of the Blue" and "Left & Right in the Dark," as well as the dark but frenetic "River of Brake Lights." But these suffer from the sterile computer rhythms; why use a drum machine when you have one of the greatest human rhythm machines in rock with Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti?

Elsewhere, though memorable melodies still abound, Casablancas sounds painfully out of his element--a New Yorker dressed head to toe in black leather stranded on a sunny beach. Witness the misguided lo-fi dance track "11th Dimension," the awkward computer-orchestrated ballad "Glass" or the bizarre drunken blues/uptight freak-folk of "Ludlow St." One wishes that producers Jason Lader and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) would have provided a bit more guidance. But one wishes even more for the return of Casablancas' old prep school mates.

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At a time when the horrors of reality easily trump the vivid imaginations of the most wicked fantasists, what is a band that regularly traffics in gore and blasphemy to do? Unsurprisingly, Slayer's 10th studio album is among the most overtly political of its long and punishing career, with songs such as the title track, "Hate Worldwide," "Public Display of Dismemberment," "Americon" and "Not of This God," and four different CD covers that, when combined, create a map of the world covered in blood and bones.

Of course, as the many devoted fans of this most extreme and influential of thrash bands will cheerfully testify, the core of its appeal has never been the lyrics that raise the ire of blue bloods; those just help set the mood for one of the most unrelentingly powerful sounds in rock. And amid rumors of its impending retirement from live performance (apparently false) and with hardly any of the new tunes written before the band entered the studio (a departure from its usual methodology), Slayer incorporated more of the hardcore punk influence than it's displayed since the mid '80s, attacking with an undiminished fury belying the fact that it's fast approaching the third decade of its career.

How can these gents defy the inevitable aging process that has sidelined so many other monstrous metal bands? Perhaps steel-throated bassist-vocalist Tom Araya is offering a clue when he howls about "drinking blood for vanity" in "Beauty Through Order," though he swears this pleasant ditty actually is about "the first known female serial killer," Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who was said to be fond of bathing in the blood of virgins. In any event, like the rest of this disc, the song will send fans of "Twilight" and "The Vampire Diaries" running in horror, and the Slayer faithful wouldn't have it any other way.

Demo2DeRo: Denise La Grassa

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A veteran of the Second City Touring Company, suburban Chicago native Denise La Grassa made her mark in that talented troupe with a bit called "Make-A-Song," writing and performing tunes on the spot based on any topic the audience shouted out. That loose, carefree and immediate vibe still permeates her third album, the recent D.I.Y. release "April Dreams," but don't let it fool you into thinking the music is tossed-off.

With an impressive but never showy range and a self-assured, conversational delivery that brings to mind a jazzier Aimee Mann, La Grassa offers uniquely personal and melodically powerful takes on romance in standout originals such as "Yesterday's Replay" and "Best Day," while local producer Matt Thompson (the Mighty Blue Kings, Frisbee) captures the spare but perfect accompaniment of a four-piece backing band.

Currently based in downstate Bloomington, La Grassa regularly gigs throughout the Midwest. Check her Website,, for dates, and sample her music there or at

Nobody does Halloween like the Chicago rock scene

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As much as the legions of tiny trick-or-treaters who'll fill the city streets this weekend, Chicago's always-vibrant underground rock scene love Halloween.

Dressing up and reveling in the horror of the season would seem to be a state of mind unrelated to age, and it's ideally suited to rock 'n' roll, as hundreds of musicians will once again prove with a bounty of Halloween shows across the city.

My annual roundup of the best of them follows the jump.

U2 returns to Soldier Field in July

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In a press release embargoed until 1 a.m. Monday but just sent out a few minutes ago, giant national concert promoters Live Nation has announced that U2 will return to Soldier Field for an encore performance (its third total) on its 360° Tour on July 6.

No word as yet about when tickets will come on sale.

Joss Stone, "Colour Me Free" (Virgin) [2 out of 4 STARS]

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When British ingénue Joss Stone first hit the music scene, she was a welcome change of pace from the many other teen pop princesses. For one, she actually could sing, with a smoky, soulful voice that belied her age. For another, she showed a genuine affinity for old-school R&B, even as the producers of her first two albums, "The Soul Sessions" (2003) and "Mind, Body & Soul" (2004), did their best to obscure it with an overly pristine sound pandering to commercial gloss.

Like so many of her peers, however--see also: Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson--the now 22-year-old Stone began to buck against the system that had fostered her, and her frustrations are given full voice on her fourth studio effort, which she claims to have written and recorded in about a week in her native Devon. The controversial cover art depicts her crammed into a cage with limbs numbered like the cuts on a chart in a butcher's shop, while the first single, "Free Me," spells out her gripes with her music-industry oppressors. "Don't tell me that I won't/I will," she sings with throaty defiance. "Don't tell me that I'm not/I am/Don't tell me that my master plan/Ain't coming through."

Noble sentiments, to be sure, but the problem is that Stone doesn't really have a master plan, or the discerning ear to tell her best moments (the more fiery, up-tempo, Aretha-lite grooves) from her worst (the schlocky slow jams, the worst of which, a dreadful cover of the Nat King Cole standard "L-O-V-E," thankfully was cut from the American edition of this album). She inexplicably reteams with two of the producers, Jonathan Shorten and Connor Reeves, responsible for her earlier, watered-down sounds; she trots out the pointless celebrity cameos (Jeff Beck, Sheila E., Nas and David Sanborn, though Raphael Saadiq is a welcome presence), and most of all, she seems more than a bit hypocritical railing against the system while remaining in its ranks and issuing this disc as yet another exclusive corporate commodity, available only through Target and iTunes.

Demo2DeRo: Sue Fink

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A sophisticated and mature singer and songwriter with a disarming little-girl voice, Sue Fink has honed her craft on the local folk scene, performing regularly at venues such as Uncommon Ground. That woodshedding, coupled with a tastefully fleshed-out sound on her new album "Thoughts at an Intersection," are part of what make her stand out from the many other musicians gently strumming their acoustic guitars.

The real appeal, however, is Fink's distinctive, off-kilter worldview, as witnessed in songs such as "Alternate Universe" ("In my alternate universe/Things only get better, not worse") and the anti-corporate-naming-rights anthem "Formerly Chicago" ("And in the city formerly known as Chicago/In either Nike or Reebok Field/I parted the Starbucks flowers/And in the tall GM grasses I kneeled"), written even before the city's tallest building became the Willis Tower.

Fink celebrates the release of her second D.I.Y. disc at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Orphanage, 643 W. 31st , or her songs and videos can be sampled on the Web at and

The Thirsty Whale Reunion

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For two generations of Chicago-area rock fans, it's hard not to wax nostalgic when driving past the intersection of Grand Avenue and Des Plaines/River Road.

These days, a gas station and a fast-food joint occupy the plot once claimed by a World War II-era roadhouse. But from the early '80s through the mid-'90s, that lovably grungy dive was known as the Thirsty Whale, and it was the epicenter of the regional hard-rock and heavy-metal scenes, host to thousands of hopeful up-and-comers as well as national acts such as Extreme, Foghat, Survivor, Cheap Trick and Enuff Z'nuff.

"A working guy's first priority is to pay the rent and buy food, which chews up his entertainment money. Everything has gone up in price these days, except wages," owner Jimmy DeCanio told The River Grove Messenger when addressing the club's closing in June 1996 (though his comments ring even more true today).

Tony "Shark" Labarbera, who worked at the club for 12 years, serving as general manager until a few months before its demolition, has another theory about its demise. "Kurt Cobain and his whole little Seattle grunge movement came in and killed everything," he says with a heavy sigh. "That was when MTV made the decision to go to that style of stuff, and they killed 'Headbangers Ball.' The interesting thing is that now it's on VH1 and the heavy-metal and hair bands are all considered classic rock."

Indeed they are, and because of the enduring popularity of these genres--the "Rock Band" video game can take much of the credit for that--as well as the fact that many of the musicians and fans who cut their teeth at the Thirsty Whale have never found another place that quite measured up, they will gather to celebrate the legacy at two shows this weekend, organized as a labor of love by the man most know as Tony Shark.


"The world is a vampire," Billy Corgan sang back in the mid-'90s, but the Great Pumpkin was ahead of his time: These days, it's impossible to sit in front of a television or movie screen without catching some glimpse of the undead--now all unnaturally beautiful teens or twentysomethings--set to appropriately moody post-alternative dinner music. No one has made these pairings more skillfully, however, than that master musical sommelier, Chicago native Alexandra Patsavas, the in-demand music supervisor who scores "Grey's Anatomy" and "Gossip Girl," and now the second installment of "The Twilight Saga," the new film "New Moon."

It's a testament to both Patsavas' reputation as a tastemaker and the massive popularity of all things "Twilight" that the soundtrack includes some real coups, with artists who rarely contribute to this sort of project, including a fabulously creepy solo track from Radiohead's Thom Yorke; inspired collaborations between indie darlings Bon Iver and St. Vincent ("Roslyn") and Grizzly Bear and Victoria Legrand of Beach House ("Slow Life"), and worthy contributions from Death Cab for Cutie, Lykke Li, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Killers, whose mix of glam-rock bombast is leavened with just the right touch of self-parody here on "A White Demon Love Song."

Even if you think tween vampire flicks suck, there are plenty of good moments here to download for your Halloween party. Just be sure not to listen in the sunlight.

Air, "Love 2" (Virgin) [2 OUT OF 4 STARS]

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As their protégés in Phoenix take America by storm with a more upbeat, dance-oriented slant on the atmospheric French synth-pop that they pioneered, it would be easy to confine studio wizards Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin to the dustbin of history: "Love 2" is their sixth studio album, and like their other releases, it doesn't measure up to their finest moment, the 1998 masterpiece "Moon Safari."

How is this Air album different from all the others? Well, it's the first the duo has produced on its own at its new studio, Atlas, and the first to feature a flesh and blood drummer, Joey Waronker. But that's it. Otherwise, we have the usual trance/sleep-inducing grooves, the familiar backgrounds of retro/futuristic analog synthesizer drones, washes and bleeps and echo-laden guitars, and those oh-so-French Serge Gainsbourg-on-'ludes spoken-sung vocals. And it's all beginning to sound pretty tired.

Yet while there are some ultra-disposable toss-offs here--chief among them the gently jaunty but exceedingly slight "Love," with lyrics that feature nothing but that word repeated again and again until you start to hate it--there are just enough strong tunes to reward fans' loyalty, including the instrumentals "Eat My Beat" and "Tropical Disease." These are enough to save Air from the accusation that it's run out of steam, but they do suggest the group should perhaps confine itself in the future to soundtracks such as the one it crafted for "The Virgin Suicides" in 2000.

Demo2DeRo: Ideamen

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Though they remain resolutely unfashionable, a number of impressive groups in the Chicago underground are devoted to forwarding the progressive-rock traditions of the '70s, including the instrumental virtuosity and musical eclecticism, with hints of more modern and metallic sounds ala Coheed and Cambria or System of a Down. To this list we can now add the South Side quintet Ideamen.

Formed in 2006 and comprised of lead vocalist Dave Solar, keyboardist Tim Swanson, bassist Mark Vasquez, guitarist Dan Figurell and drummer Phil Goodrich, Ideamen made their recorded debut with a strong five-song EP called "Progress." Now, they've followed that up with an even more melodic, precisely arranged and gleefully inventive album entitled "May You Live in Interesting Times," to be released next week by the Los Angeles indie label Rotten Records.
If the vocals can become a bit helium-squeaky at times--hardly a new problem in prog (see also: Jon Anderson of Yes and the guys in Supertramp)--the melodies and rhythms are powerful enough to hold your interest through all the time changes and unexpected detours.

These sounds can be sampled online at, you can read more about the group at and you can catch it onstage at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, during a combination CD release show and Halloween Extravaganza starting at 8 p.m. on Oct. 30.


Though it may seem like the most unlikely endeavor, longtime fans of rock's most famous bard must applaud the notion of Robert Allen Zimmerman making a Christmas album--that is, at least if you appreciate the wickedly sarcastic sense of humor and love of surrealism that have always been a strain in Bob Dylan's work.

This is, after all, the man whose autobiography lauds old-time wrestler Gorgeous George and ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim as two of his biggest inspirations, and who loves to mess with our notion of his status as the Voice of a Generation with the occasional mind-boggling detour like making a Victoria's Secret commercial.

Conceptually, then, "Christmas in the Heart" is a success, simply because it's so unexpected and downright bizarre. You might think that as he enters the sixth decade of his career, with 34 studio albums and countless live recordings to his credit, Dylan couldn't come up with anything to surprise us anymore. Well, he just found something.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the music, the album is a complete failure.

From the faux-Currier and Ives cover art to the annoyingly precious arrangements, and from the beyond-predictable choice of tired holiday chestnuts to the chorus of backing vocalists who sound as if they could be the surviving members of the King Family, Dylan plays things beyond straight, adhering to the syrupy, schlocky pop sounds of the pre-rock era that also provided the worst moments on his recent albums.

Never a conventionally good singer, of late, Dylan's once powerful croak has become more of a raspy wheeze. But his delivery is the real problem.

When the star stumbles through "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he sounds like the family's disinherited black sheep embarrassment, delivering the sentiment as a threat rather than a promise. In "Winter Wonderland," when that treacly chorus coos, "We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman," he sounds like a psychotic as he answers, "Until the other kids all knock him down!" And by the time he starts slaughtering the familiar Latin refrain of "Adeste fideles"--"Venite adoremus Dominum" becomes, no kidding, "Benito adore-a-moose domino!"--you don't know whether to wince or guffaw.

If the proceeds of this album weren't being donated to charities dedicated to easing world hunger, you might think it was all a big put-on. Regardless, fans would be well advised to make a donation of their own and spare themselves this holiday torture.

Japandroids: Two's company (and more than enough)

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Unlike many of the two-person bands flooding the rock scene, Japandroids never sound like a mere duo--not on their album "Post-Nothing," and certainly not on stage, as when they pummeled the expectant crowd at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival.

Drummer-vocalist David Prowse and guitarist-vocalist Brian King simply settled on the two-piece lineup as all they needed to deliver their arty garage-rock mix of heavy rhythms, harsh noises and sweet melodies.

"The thing that I enjoy about our band is that when people listen to our records, they don't immediately think that it's a two-person band," Prowse says. "The thing I like about the two-piece format is that we have as much room to make as much noise as we want, and we don't really have to restrain ourselves in any way. It's a lot of fun to have the freedom to really go off without having to sync up with a bass line or get in the way of two guitar melodies or whatever."

Kiss, "Sonic Boom" (Kiss Records) [1/2 OUT OF 4 STARS]

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Of the many generational gaps and stylistic schisms that fester as rock rolls through its sixth decade--from those who'll forever favor Elvis over the Beatles to those who'd champion Britney over Madonna--none illustrates a more rigid, unforgiveable and unbridgeable divide than the one between the legions who were brainwashed as youth into becoming members of the Kiss Army, seduced by its fire-belching cartoon reduction of true heavy-metal hell-raising, and the rest of us who cannot abide the simplistic stomping, redundant riffing and brain-dead sexism of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and their current greasepaint-wearing cohorts even as satire or a guilty pleasure.

Such is our distaste for these pandering huckster boors that we still hold it against Paul Westerberg and the Replacements for covering "Black Diamond" on the otherwise flawless "Let It Be" (1984).

For us skeptics, it makes perfect sense that for their first album of new Kiss material in 12 years, Simmons (age 60) and Stanley (57) have wound up with an exclusive deal at a big-box retailer that shares its charmless, vulgar, neo-fascistic "bigger is better" aesthetic, neatly summed up here--and repeated for the umpteenth time over the last 35 years--in the new track "Never Enough," which finds Stanley wailing, "Give me life for the takin'/Give me love 'til I'm shakin'/Give me rules just for breakin'/'Cause it's never enough! Never enough! Never enough!"

Actually, it was enough with "Destroyer" way back in 1976, the point at which Bob Ezrin's bombastic melodrama forever blurred inside-joke and shameless self-parody, as the packaging of this release makes clear. In addition to a CD of the 11 new tracks--more titles that tell you all you need to know: "All for the Glory," "Danger Us" and "I'm An Animal"--the bargain-priced three-disc package also includes a live DVD and a greatest-hits collection, though concert staples such as "Detroit Rock City," "Shout It Out Loud" and, yes, "Black Diamond" all have been re-recorded by the unremarkable current lineup completed by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer and lacking the original "spaceman" guitarist Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, a.k.a. the drummer who sang "Beth," who departed for the most recent times in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

As soggy and soulless as these new renditions of alleged Kiss classics are, even these are preferable to the trite and formulaic new product of the Kiss Corporation circa 2009. Never enough? More like, "Not again--please!"

Kiss performs at the United Center at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 6. Tickets range from $18.50 to $125--with a special "KISS Meet & Greet Experience" priced at $995--via, (312) 559-1212.

Demo2DeRo: Light Pollution

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National Geographic has defined light pollution as "ill-designed lighting [that] washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels--and light rhythms--to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted." Light pollution, the phenomenon, threatens migration, reproduction and feeding in the natural world. But Light Pollution, the band, is much more benign in its swirling, hypnotic and alternately sweetly melodic and unsettlingly disorienting washes of reverb, analog synthesizers, clattering percussion and lo-fi noise.

Originally formed by vocalist and bandleader Jim Cicero and his drummer-pal Matt Evertt [CQ] in DeKalb when Cicero was attending Northern Illinois University, the group, which expands to a quartet onstage, has become a much-buzzed fixture on the Chicago club scene, thanks to its mix of vintage '90s shoegazer psychedelia and more currently hip freak folk a la Grizzy Bear. What's more, it's beginning to garner attention throughout the Midwest as it tours to build anticipation for a forthcoming full-length album, following on the heels of last year's self-titled debut EP. Three enchanting tracks are streaming on the band's Web after an impressive roster of far-flung gigs, it returns to its current home for a show at Schubas on Nov. 22.

Demo2DeRo: Leave

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Leave was the sort of hard-working, extremely talented but never flashy, meat-and-potatoes Midwestern power-pop band that can be heard in two or three venues around town on any given night, and which always prompts a smile. It's the kind of group that's all too easy to take for granted--until it's gone.

I last celebrated the effervescent grooves, tight harmonies and chiming guitars of bandleader Mike Murphy, guitarist Jim Latsis, drummer Terry Keating and bassist Joe Herrmann in one of the periodic roundups of local demos and D.I.Y. releases that were the precursor to this column in 2003. I kept an eye on their doings in the years that followed, but didn't get around to writing about them again until now, as their latest self-released album "On a Happy Note" arrives with both the best music and the saddest news they've given us.

The new disc commemorates Murphy's last recordings, completed two days before his death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver last year. The sounds can be sampled online at, but it would be even better to celebrate it live from 3 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St. in Merrionette Park, during the "Murph's Gift of Music Benefit," a fundraiser for the Michael J. Murphy Music Scholarship Fund to provide lessons and instruments to children and teens who don't have the financial means. More information can be found at


The 12th studio album from Oklahoma's fabulous Flaming Lips represents the sort of radical surprise and unexpected departure that was commonplace from these long-running psychedelic rockers through the first two acts of their career, from their origins as a sort of "Replacements on acid" during the indie-rock '80s through their hard-hitting mainstream breakthrough in the alternative-rock heyday of the'90s. But since their reinvention as a digital orchestral-pop band with "The Soft Bulletin" in 1999, they've become both less prolific and more predictable, with each new release boasting flashes of brilliance but ultimately taking a backseat to their increasingly shtick-filled low-budget multi-media stage shows.

Simply put, longtime fans were growing increasingly impatient waiting for the Lips to quit being cute, retire the armies of plushies, the space bubble and the group sing-alongs on "Happy Birthday," and finally hit us with some truly twisted, thoroughly mind-blowing rock 'n' roll again a la the early epic "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning."

"Embryonic" is not entirely successful in this regard--it's not nearly in the same league as "In a Priest Driven Ambulance" (1990) or "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" (1993)--but it is freakier, more expansive, more willfully noncommercial and more surprising than anything Wayne Coyne and company have given us in 14 years.

Favoring space-jazz rhythms that split the difference between electric Miles Davis and Krautrockers Can, with wild bursts of distorted guitar that evoke gonzo Frank Zappa crossed with punked-out mid-period Pink Floyd, the 18 tracks comprise what would have been a great headphone-friendly double album back in the day. Songs such as "I Can Be A Frog" (featuring delightful background animal yelps from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's), "Scorpio Sword" and "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" are about creating a surreal and otherworldly mood rather than playing to the crowd that loves to sing along to "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1." The mistake the Lips made with their last album, "At War with the Mystics" (2006) was trying to split the difference; here, they're unapologetically weird once more.

How will the festival crowd that has come to think of this group as the ultimate party band react to this material? And will the group boldly push further into this stratosphere in concert, or will it just throw a few hints of these sounds into the increasingly hoary stage show? (That's what it did at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, incorporating the catchiest of the new tracks--"Convinced of the Hex" and "Silver Trembling Hands"--amid the expected greatest hits.) The answers to those questions have to wait until the group's next U.S. tour in the Spring. Meanwhile, it's given us new cause to dust off the bong and the blacklight, and that's cause to celebrate.


The fourth album and major-label debut by rural Arkansas-to-Olympia, Wash. transplants the Gossip has been one of the most anticipated releases of the last few years: The irrepressible dance-punk trio broke out of the underground and achieved a measure of mainstream success with the undeniable grooves of "Standing in the Way of Control" (2005), and in the process, frontwoman Beth Ditto--a funny, flamboyant and endlessly quotable opponent of sexism, homophobia and sizism--has become a left-of-center star, recognized for her charming outrageousness as well as for possessing one of the most powerful and soulful voices to appear on the rock scene since the alternative era.

Unfortunately, en route to more exposure via the still sadly retrogressive major-label system, the Gossip was paired with superstar producer Rick Rubin, who's helmed recordings by artists ranging from Slayer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash. With the latter, he wisely played a minimal role and simply paired the rock pioneer with good material and the most simple and direct of sounds, the better for him to shine. He should have taken a similar approach with Ditto and her bandmates, but the relatively minimal core of her vocals, the rhythmic guitar lines of Brace Paine and the propulsive drumming of Hannah Billie is needlessly polished and over-produced, cleansed of all of the grit of the band's live shows and robbed of almost all of its character.

There is clearly another set of solid Gossip material below the dated radio-friendly sheen that Rubin hoses all over these tunes, with tracks such as "Dimestore Diamond," "Heavy Cross" and "8th Wonder" struggling to escape the gloss. But in the end, too much of the character we've come to love about this band has been obscured, and the Gossip has to take some of the blame for being seduced--and declawed--by the star-making machine.

The Gossip performs at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, after opening sets by Post Honeymoon and Men starting at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door; visit

Kanye West cancels tours with Lady Gaga

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Giant national concert promoters Live Nation announced early Thursday evening that Chicago hip-hop superstar Kanye West has canceled his upcoming "Fame Kills" Tour with pop phenom Lady Gaga, which was to have stopped at the United Center on Jan. 16.

Live Nation noted that "refunds are available at the point of purchase" and that "tickets purchased online and via phone will be refunded automatically." But no reason for the cancellation was given.

Earlier Thursday, the Web site reported that Lady Gaga was the one who wanted out of the national jaunt. Meanwhile, several other publications are reporting that before West rushed the stage and interrupted an acceptance speech by Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, he was filmed drinking cognac straight from the bottle, and that he may be heading to rehab.

West made the most emotional album of his career late last year after ending his engagement and suffering the death of his mother. But several musicians who are close to the star say that while he has remained prolific--last week, he had produced tracks for three of the Top 10 albums on the Billboard chart--his emotional state has been "fragile."

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