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November 2009 Archives

Matthew Santos aims to become his own "Superstar"

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Even if you don't know the name, you've probably heard Matthew Santos sing: His was the powerful, soaring voice that delivered the indelible choruses of Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco's smash hit "Superstar."

"It was a blessing, but it was also a curse," Santos says of the song that put him on the map. "It's gotten my music to people around the world that I would never have been able to reach otherwise. But people have expectations after hearing a song like that. Hopefully, it's a pleasant surprise when people come and hear what I really do."

What Santos really does is something he calls "neo-soul folk-rock"--think of a less serpentine Jeff Buckley combined with a more genuine John Mayer and the hint of a Gen Y update of Bill Withers. It's a sound he hopes to introduce to a wider audience with a new release next spring, and which he's celebrating Friday, Dec. 4, with an ambitious "album preview show" at the new Lincoln Hall.

The Jesus Lizard at Metro

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FINAL UPDATE: Metro publicist Jenny Lizak reports that while Jesus Lizard singer David Yow bruised his ribs when he hit the floor while crowd-surfing, he didn't break them, and the band's second Chicago show tonight WILL go on. Her full statement can be found in the comments section below.

SECOND UPDATE 11:30 a.m.: From Jesus Lizard publicist Miranda Lange: "There's little info at this point other than he [David Yow] sustained a rib injury while crowd surfing. The show tonight is tentative." More information as soon as it becomes available.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments section below, there are reports of David Yow being more-than-the-usual-bruises banged up when he hit the floor while crowd-surfing during the second encore. Updates are welcome; awaiting official word on his condition from Metro and Jesus Lizard publicity.

One by one, the four members of the reunited Jesus Lizard strolled onstage at Metro Friday night for the first of two triumphant shows, and the applause grew louder as each took his place.

Duane Denison appeared amiable enough as he prepared to wax sinister and ferocious on guitar. Bassist David Wm. Sims spread his legs wide and planted himself on the right, an unyielding anchor for the rhythm section in the face of the coming storm. And Mac McNeilly slid in behind the drums wearing a T-shirt and shorts, looking like a lean and lanky athlete about to run a marathon, which he effectively was.

Finally, the crowd erupted as David Yow sauntered out, hair disheveled as always, thrift-store red shirt hanging over the beer belly protruding from his too-tight blue jeans, the cowboy boots looking innocuous despite his Nevada and Texas roots. "You don't mean it," he taunted the cheering fans. "You're just saying that."

As the group launched into "Puss"--an appropriate choice as one of the best songs from "Liar" (1992) as well as half of the band's split single with another influential and unforgettable group of the alternative era, Nirvana--Yow hurled himself into the crowd, riding atop its upstretched arms throughout the tune, kicking and failing while howling like a man possessed.

"One down, fourteen to go," Yow cracked as the song ended and he finally crawled back onstage. It was as if he'd beaten one assailant and was preparing to take on the rest of the gang.

Anyone who saw the band's first comeback show in its old home town at the Pitchfork Music Festival last July and thought that maybe, just maybe, it had lost a step since it split up in 1999 soon reconsidered. The Jesus Lizard was merely very, very good at Pitchfork, while at Metro, it was once again the greatest band in the world, at least for an hour and a half.

Sure, at age 49, Yow spent a little less time on the floor, in the pit and in the crowd than he did back in the day; an infamous show at the Vic Theatre in the mid-'90s still looms large in legend for him spending almost no time onstage at all. But the intensity was the same as he channeled the waves of energy created by his band mates and the crowd into a performance equal parts deeply disturbing and wildly celebratory.

He was the prisoner let loose from a cell of inconceivable horrors rabidly turning on his former captors. He was the victim screaming incomprehensibly as some alien force took control of body and soul. He was the front man who for 20 years has challenged writers to come up with some metaphor for the gonzo sideshow that, in the end, you really just have to experience.

Drawing heavily from "Goat" (1991) and "Liar"--with "Gladiator," "Seasick," "Then Comes Dudley" and the climactic "7 vs. 8" among the many standouts--the musicians sounded tighter and more self-assured than they did last summer. And they benefited from the confines of Metro as opposed to the baseball field in Union Park; it's much easier to start a controlled riot in a defined space as opposed to a cheery outdoor expanse.

While it might be true that one fan's successful encore is another's nostalgic cash-in, the differences were many and significant between the Jesus Lizard's return and that of its alt-era peers the Pixies earlier this month.

For one, it's easier to forgive the Jesus Lizard its lack of new material since it's on the first round of its reunion jaunt, while the Pixies have been back together but still living in the past for five years now. For another, the Jesus Lizard always was a better live band than the Pixies, who tended to be stilted and static back in the day and are more so now.

Most importantly, though, the Pixies pretty much achieved the fame and the accolades they deserved the first time, while the Jesus Lizard, though wildly popular among its cult following, ended with something left to prove--that for all of the chaos and mania Yow created onstage, there were some brilliant songs and exquisite musicianship at the eye of the hurricane. Now we have the opportunity to appreciate that anew.

Though the Aragon is far from the ideal venue for the band--I've been longing to see these unlikely arena-rockers return to a Chicago Theatre or a Metro for years now--the bizarre pop experiments and gleefully tuneful exuberance of Weezer's recently issued seventh studio album "Raditude" arguably make braving the muddy-sounding Capone-era ballroom worth the gamble. Jack's Mannequin and Motion City Soundtrack open at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1; tickets are $44.75 plus egregious service fees through www.ticketmaster.com, (312) 559-1212.

Following a close second to the Jesus Lizard's two shows at Metro, the sure-fire best way to shake off the Thanksgiving-induced tryptophan hangover in the coming days is with the take-no-prisoners, sheer-the-top-of-your-head-off Japanese noise-rockers Melt-Banana, who are making a rare U.S. appearance on Sunday, Nov. 30, at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St. Triclops!, 97-Shiki and Jewsus open at 8 p.m., and tickets are $14 through www.ticketweb.com. Call (312) 929-2022 or visit www.bottomlounge.com for more information.

Hopefully, the holiday spirit will prompt many to consider worthy causes in the coming weeks, and for the Chicago music community, that list certainly includes veteran musician, producer and soundman Lee Popa, who's fighting an awful disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitisin. There's a Website set up for the former member of the Slammin Watusis at http://saveleepopa.com/, and a benefit taking place on Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Liars Club, 1665 W. Fullerton, with music and a booth offering the opportunity to throw pies at Joe Kelly of the Beer Nuts.

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Finally, many in the suburban punk underground will fondly remember the Sputnik Coffeehouse in Homewood for a stretch some years back when it offered a cool alternative all-ages venue for up-and-coming acts. Owner John Brazas, a longtime scene mainstay and the heart and the soul of the place, is now battling pancreatic cancer without health insurance, and he's hosting a Sputnik Coffeehouse Ten Year Reunion show as a benefit on Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturday, Nov. 28, at Lassen's Tap, 2131 W. 183rd St in Homewood. Friday's performers start at 7 p.m. and include Polyfuse, Johnnie and Tate Brazas, Rachel Mylan, Jeremy the Cowboy and more. Saturday's lineup starts at 8 p.m. and features Wolcott, the Conways, Frederick, the Seventies and others. Tickets are $10 per night; for more information, visit Sputnik on Facebook.

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While there are many positive things to be said about digital distribution, now the primary means for buying new music and quickly driving the CD to extinction, one thing you can't do with an MP3 file is wrap it up and put it under the Christmas tree.

For the purposes of holiday gift giving, physical product--hopefully purchased from one of the many fine mom-and-pop retailers still thriving against the odds in the Chicago area--remains the best way to bring a big smile to the face of the music lover on your seasonal shopping list.

With that in mind, my annual roundup of the coolest and best rock-related gifts among recently issued CD box sets, DVDs and books follows after the jump, along with some quick notes on what else is out there--and a few lump-of-coal musts to avoid.

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When it comes to tragic spectacles in this sorry age of reality television, beyond even the pathetic sight of Patti Blagojevich eating bugs on "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" falls the obnoxious exploitation of Scottish homebody Susan Boyle.

Diagnosed with learning difficulties and, she says, verbally tormented and physically abused by teachers and schoolmates, Boyle also was blessed with a pure, clear and ringing voice. Until a few months ago, the 48-year-old singer most often displayed her talent in church while living quietly with her cat Pebbles in the house where she was raised. But things dramatically changed last April, when she appeared on the third season of the U.K. television show "Britain's Got Talent."

Though Boyle ultimately lost the talent contest--placing second to a dance troupe--she became a worldwide phenomenon as millions watched clips of her singing a track from the musical "Les Miserables" and the standard "Cry Me a River" on YouTube. Now comes her debut album, "I Dreamed a Dream," arriving in stores Tuesday, but already the bestselling pre-order CD in the history of Amazon.com, topping "Jay-Z, Whitney Houston and even the Beatles' remastered CDs," according to her publicists.

"One of the things that is so unique about Susan Boyle is her ability to touch people around the world," according to her American record label, Columbia. And it's certainly true that many of her fans have been attracted by the power of her voice and the story of an ordinary woman's triumph over the superficialities of our celebrity culture.

Unfortunately, it's also true that the way that story was calculatingly scripted into "Britain's Got Talent" has attracted just as many people--the kind who get a real kick out of watching a former governor's wife and failed "American Idol" Sanjaya Malakar eating bugs and enduring other tortures in the jungle--who are laughing at Boyle and ruthlessly mocking her on the Internet, on radio and in gossip columns, unleashing the same callous cruelty as those who attacked her during her school days.

Boyle has paid a price for all of this. Hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic the day after she lost on the TV show, she also dropped out of many of the dates on the live tour that followed. The British press endlessly speculated about her health and well being, though she said she needed to conserve her voice for her album.

Columbia refused to provide reviewers with advance copies of "I Dreamed a Dream," but despite one of the tightest security clampdowns in the digital age, the music finally leaked on the Internet Thursday. The verdict: While Boyle's voice is an impressive instrument, it cannot be denied that her interpretations of the 12 11 covers and one original are nowhere near extraordinary enough to merit a fraction of the attention and anticipation they've garnered if considered solely on musical merit.

Arranged for maximum orchestral bombast and drenched in schmaltz, the material clearly was chosen for the broadest marketing appeal. There are Baby Boomer-friendly pop songs ("Wild Horses," "Daydream Believer," "The End of the World"), traditional hymns ("Amazing Grace," "How Great Thou Art"), the tunes she sang on television and even, in consideration of the season, a closing version of "Silent Night."

None of these can fairly be considered the definitive reading of the song, as artful as the work of a Charlotte Church, or even anything beyond the capabilities of a thousand gifted mezzo-sopranos regularly appearing in musicals staged by community theaters around the world. The difference is that Boyle, for better or worse, is in the midst of Andy Warhol's fabled 15 minutes of fame.

In the end, the most notable track is the one purported to be Boyle's sole original, "Who I Was Born to Be," which stands as an autobiographical anthem. "I'm not a girl/I've known the taste of defeat," she sings over syrupy strings. "[Now] I've got the world in my hands/And it feels like my turn to fly/Though I may not know the answers/I can finally say I'm free/And if the questions led me here then/I'm who I was born to be."

Let's hope that Boyle truly is as free and as happy as she asserts.

The Pixies at the Aragon

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When a group of revered and influential rockers come back together after a decade of acrimonious separation and/or inactivity, all but the most hard-hearted punks can grant them one lap around the reunion circuit playing the old should-have-been-hits, if only to collect the accolades and the cash that probably eluded them the first time.

Boston's proto-alternative quartet the Pixies took that victory lap in 2004. Now, while they remain popular enough to play three nights at the Aragon Ballroom--Friday and Saturday sold out, though Thursday only was about half full--it's hard to consider them anything but a cynical corporation cashing in on blatant nostalgia--a hipper version of Creedence Clearwater Revisited or Journey and whoever is singing with that group these days.

Bandleader Black Francis, bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering have had nearly five years during their second act to prove that they are once again a vital, vibrant and forward-moving creative unit. Instead, absent even the whiff of a new album, the twist they've put on their latest tour is that it's the 20th anniversary celebration of "Doolittle," their second and best studio album, and an epic of free-associated weirdness, twisted sexual imagery and religious symbolism.

Before launching into the album proper on night one at the Aragon Thursday, the group screened "Un chien andalou," the 1929 Surrealist film by Luis Bunel and Salvador Dali that inspired some of the songs' lyrics. Then the band let loose a salvo of B-sides from the same era--"Dancing the Manta Ray," "Weird at My School," "Bailey's Walk" and "Manta Ray"--none of them especially noteworthy on record or onstage.

Finally we were into a track-by-track reading of 1989's still inscrutable classic, starting with "Debaser," rolling through the standouts "Here Comes Your Man" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," bogging down in the middle of side two just like the vinyl LP and wrapping up with "Gouge Away."

Black Francis screamed and shouted, and Deal added the skewed harmonies. Santiago churned out those unique acid-surf riffs, and Lovering hammered the drums like Dave Grohl's uncle. And throughout, they all showed their mastery of those quiet/loud/quiet dynamic shifts that became an alternative-rock trope.

None of it was embarrassing, but none of it was extraordinary, either. The Pixies were a stilted, static band that added little fire to the songs in live performance in '89, and the same is true in '09. This time, however, you could buy a live digital recording of the show you just saw for $25 on the way out, to relive the experience you already bought with your $44.75 ticket.

Of course, reliving the experience is what the new millennial Pixies are all about. And they seem happy to continue facilitating that as long as people want to keep buying it.

Rihanna, "Rated R" (Def Jam) [3 STARS out of 4]

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For all the talk of an edgier, angrier and more mature new Rihanna, it's hard to buy the re-emergent dance-pop singer as a towering pillar of feminine strength akin to Patti Smith, Courtney Love, Queen Latifah or Mary J. Blige.

It will take more than a few fiery television interviews and a dark and futuristic new look that's equal parts Daryl Hannah in "Blade Runner" and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes in TLC to really sell that.

Nevertheless, "Rated R," the new album recorded in the wake of Rihanna's altercation with former boyfriend Chris Brown arriving in stores Monday, is by far the best, most layered and most heartfelt effort of the 21-year-old artist's career, even if her new woman-in-charge persona is in part just another marketing pose.

Ever since Robyn Rihanna Fenty was discovered in her native Barbados by Evan Rogers, a veteran producer of 'N Sync, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Kelly Clarkson, the one-time beauty queen has followed the path of many other prefab pop princesses in the new millennium, cheerfully turning her scantily clad self over to the manipulations of the star-making machine.

Her first two albums, "Music of the Sun" (2005) and "A Girl Like Me" (2006), were easily dismissible dance-pop trifles with a hint of Caribbean spicing. Riri, as she's known to fans, began to show more range with the phenomenally successful "Good Girl Gone Bad" in 2007. But as that title and the enjoyable but ultimately insubstantial singles "Umbrella" and "Disturbia" indicated, she still seemed to be just another pretty puppet dancing on the strings of her (male) producers, managers and handlers.

Then came the altercation with Brown that derailed her scheduled performance during the Grammy Awards last February. Though the details were sketchy at first--and Rihanna, like many victims of abuse, initially seemed to absolve her assailant--Brown eventually pleaded guilty to felony assault, and Rihanna bid him good riddance.

There can be no debate: Penitent or not, Brown has proven to be a world-class creep and a brutal thug. He began serving a sentence of five years' probation, six months of community labor and a year of domestic violence counseling last August. And Rihanna started making her fourth studio album with a superstar team of producers and songwriters including Stargate, the Dream, Ne-Yo, will.i.am and Justin Timberlake.

"I was involved in a lot of the writing," Rihanna told Glamour magazine. "I put everything I've wanted to say for the past eight months into my music. The songs are really personal. It's rock 'n' roll, but it's really hip-hop: If Lil Wayne and Kings of Leon like my album, then I'll feel good... It's super-fearless."

Though there's nothing inherently rock 'n' roll or "super-fearless" about lacing slick, synthesized dance-pop grooves with a little electric guitar, some of it courtesy of Slash, a quarter of a century after "Thriller," there is a more insistent punch and electrifying energy in the 13 grooves on "Rated R," which also lives up to its title and emphasizes its maturity with a lot more profanity than we've heard from Riri in the past. (This is her first disc with a Parental Advisory warning label.)

The album moves through the same sort of emotional journey that one imagines the singer undergoing in the last year. After an opening old-school horror-movie homage called "Mad House"--more shades of "Thriller"--we find Rihanna boasting about being part of an unbeatable team ("Together we gonna be taking over") and sitting on top of the pop charts and the world in general ("Brilliant, resilient/Fan mail from 27 million") in "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard."

Then things get darker--and more interesting. Set against a spare, piano-driven melody, "Stupid in Love" is as honest an examination of how a smart woman can fall into a destructive relationship as pop has ever given us. The singer continues to probe this theme with the more upbeat and obviously metaphorical "Russian Roulette" before finally standing up for herself in "Rockstar 101." (And isn't it great that, even in these commercially co-opted times, some people still equate "rock" with "rebellion"?)

"I've never played a victim/I'd rather be a stalker," Rihanna sings. That's hardly a profound or particularly feminist lyric, but its strength comes from the way she spits out the words. In both the quieter, more introspective songs and the angrier dancehall-flavored club-stompers, her limited vocal range has never sounded more convincing or deserving of the pop spotlight.

As with the first third of the disc, the last portion isn't quite as gripping as the middle section. The album ends with a bit more sunshine, culminating with the lushly arranged, Timberlake-penned "Cold Case Love" and the aptly named sing-along coda, "The Last Song."

Is any of this the 2009 equivalent of Aretha Franklin belting out, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me"? Heck no. But "Rated R" is a much better effort than many might have expected from Rihanna, and one that makes this listener eager to hear how much more she may grow in the years to come.

The Jesus Lizard, back where it belongs

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"A lot of people who meet us are disappointed that we're such moderately intelligent, well-balanced, happy guys," Jesus Lizard bassist David Wm. Sims told me in August 1994. "[Guitarist] Duane [Denison] and I spend a lot of time writing songs. [Singer] David [Yow] and [drummer] Mac [McNeilly] are married. David is doing some acting and working a lot with computer graphics, and Mac has a family. That takes people back initially."

That was true when the band formed in 1988. It was true when I spoke to it circa the release of "Down," the last of four albums for Chicago's Touch and Go before an unlikely jump to Capitol Records. (It remains one of the weirdest quirks of the alternative era that for a time, the Jesus Lizard was brought to you by the same company that nurtured Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.) And it still was true last summer, when the reunited group took the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.

Sure, Yow, a famously intense frontman second only to Iggy Pop and the late Lux Interior of the Cramps, had mellowed a bit as he prepared to celebrate his 49th birthday. But he still spent an inordinate amount of time atop the arms of the crowd, alternately sounding like a crazed preacher speaking in tongues and a hostage screaming through the duct tape plastered over his mouth. Meanwhile, Denison churned out spare but indelible riffs and overwhelming waves of feedback, and Sims and McNeilly evoked the legendary Led Zeppelin rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham sitting in with James Brown's Famous Flames after an all-night bacchanal of speed and whiskey.

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Singer David Yow and drummer Mac McNeilly of the Jesus Lizard onstage at the Pitchfork Music Festival last July. Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

A Zelig-like character who was one of the most respected and versatile musicians on the British rock scene of the '60s and '70s, Ian "Mac" McLagan may be best known for his role in the Faces, and he recently had a reunion of sorts in the U.K. with former bandmates Ronnie Wood and Kenney Jones and guest Bill Wyman on bass. Those names aren't likely to appear with him onstage Friday, Nov. 20, at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln, but you never know who will join him, or how far and wide his set list will range. The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets are $15; call (773) 404-9494 or visit www.martyrslive.com.

One of the most promising groups on the Chicago rock scene of the early '90s, though it never achieved the success of peers such as Veruca Salt, Tart was a trio led by Joy Gregory and Laura Eason, both of whom also performed with the Lookingglass Theatre. Now, Eason has written a play called "Rewind" inspired by her time in the band and the rock scene of that era, including the sad death of Jim Ellison of Material Issue. Produced by the Side Project Theatre Company, 1439 W. Jarvis, it opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20 (tickets are $18) and runs through Dec. 20 with several showings a week. Check www.thesideproject.net for more information.

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During the world premiere of Them Crooked Vultures at Metro last August, the primary joy of this latest supergroup came from surrendering to the pummeling rhythms of Dave Grohl--one of the finest drummers of his generation with Nirvana turned one of the most pandering radio schlock meisters of the last decade with the Foo Fighters--as he gleefully channeled John Bonham while assaulting the clock with Bonzo's old bandmate, legendary Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. You felt every punishing bass drum beat walloping you in the chest as Jones' rumbling four-, six-, eight- and more-string bass lines vibrated your innards, while at the same time you taxed your brain following rhythmic patterns turned inside-out and upside-down with no loss of forward momentum.

This was hard rock that was as visceral as it was intellectual, and it was a jolly good time and a pretty impressive trick--onstage. Unfortunately, it hasn't translated nearly as well now that the much-buzzed all-star trio, which expands to a quartet in concert, has finally released its debut album, and much of the blame must rest on the third leg of this glitzy tripod, Queens of the Stone Age bandleader Josh Homme.

Given the leisure and the dubious benefit of pondering the songwriting and parsing Homme's weak and not in a Robert Plant-like way vocals--not for nothing has this guy often ceded the mike to guest singers with the Queens--all of the flaws of this made-in-a-manager's-boardroom collaboration become all too obvious, and they are the same as most supergroups': Star power and virtuosity don't compensate for lackluster material, no matter how much the musicians are stoked to be jamming with storied peers.

Jones' impressive skills as a master arranger and versatile multi-instrumentalist are underutilized, with only the odd coda (such as the "Sgt. Pepper's"-style outro incongruously tacked onto the end of "Mind Eraser No Chaser"), afterthought dollop of keyboards ("Spinning in Daffodils") or downright bad idea (the lounge music-on-Mars detour of "Interlude with Ludes") hinting at that reservoir of talent. Grohl's undeniable ear for hooks and sweet backing vocals also go untapped, putting most of the burden on Homme to craft the vehicles to carry these Grand Prix drivers, and he delivers tunes that would be filler at best on the finest Queens albums (the single "New Fang" or the stomping "Elephants") as well as material that at worst wouldn't make the cut on a "Desert Sessions" toss-off ("Bandoliers" or "Caligulove," whose lyrics are even worse than that titles might indicate: "I already gotcha baby/Put yourself upon me/I'm in lust, a slave to desire/When you Caligulove me").

Yes, there are pleasures to be had: Muso-geeks would be happy to hear Jones and Grohl play the Britney Spears songbook, just because it was the two of them playing. But for all the promises the musicians showed onstage--or, for that matter, in much of what they've done before--the sum of the whole on record is much less than each of the parts.

Demo2DeRo: Noise By Numbers

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Though two of its members have much higher-profile pedigrees than many of the groups that the Demo2DeRo column addresses--Dan "Vapid" Schafer has played in Screeching Weasel and the Riverdales, as well as leading the Methadones, and Jeff Dean is in the Bomb--their new collaboration with bassist Rick Uncapher (Textbook) and drummer Jimmy Lucido on the debut album "Yeah, Whatever..." could easily be overlooked outside the punk underground, and that would be a shame.

Despite the cheeky, hinting-at-generic sounds moniker, Noise By Numbers draws inspiration from the fertile'80s indie-rock scene of Husker Du, the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr. and their ilk as well as classic Chicago punk sounds like Naked Raygun and the Effigies to inject a heaping dose of sing-along melody into every propulsive and hard-hitting groove, making for an instantly familiar yet somehow distinctive and fresh-sounding formula: Good tunes are timeless, and they're always welcome.

The band has two impressive gigs in the coming weeks, at the Beat Kitchen on Dec. 4 and opening for Rise Against at Metro on Dec. 18, but a sampling of its songs are streaming now at www.myspace.com/noisebynumbers.

Bad Lieutenant cancels Chicago dates

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The new supergroup led by New Order/Joy Division vet Bernard Sumner has been forced to cancel its U.S. tour dates, which include a Nov. 18 appearance at Park West and an opening slot for the Pixies at the Aragon on Nov. 19. Refunds for the Park West show are available at the point of purchase, according to promoter Jam Productions, while a new opener for the Pixies will be announced soon.

According to a statement from the band's publicist, visa problems are to blame: "The more stringent immigration laws and changing visa parameters resulted in an inability to process the necessary paperwork."

The group hopes to actually make it here in the Spring.

UPDATE: The Brooklyn duo Black Gold has been added to the Pixies' Aragon show to replace Bad Lieutenant.


Kid Sister finally gets ready to drop "Ultraviolet"

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Born in Chicago Heights, raised in the south suburb of Markham and attending high school in Richton Park, Melissa Young didn't think a lot about the role of women in hip-hop--or, for that matter, about her own relationship with feminism.

"I didn't grow up listening to too many female rappers, though I did like Salt-n-Pepa, because they were so poppy and fun," Young says. "But my father really was the one who raised us--he was the disciplinarian who instilled all of the knowledge--and he was one of five boys in a family that had no sisters. There was never this message of, 'You're a woman, things are different.' It was like, 'You're my kid, get out there and crank up the lawnmower and do your chores just like your brother!'"

So while the 29-year-old artist--better known to the music world as Kid Sister--is one of the most exciting voices to emerge on the scene since the heyday of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Yo-Yo, she'd prefer to be known as a great rapper, period, instead of as a great female rapper.

"When I do music, it's my goal to create in a way that is as good if not better than any of the guys out there. It doesn't even cross my mind, to be honest. I never think, 'I have this responsibility because I'm a woman.' I think, 'I have a responsibility to be a bad ass because I'm a musician and I don't want to put out crap!' You don't get extra points for being a girl--hell no!"

New albums from John Mayer and Norah Jones

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Norah Jones, "The Fall" (Blue Note) [1.5 STARS out of 4]

John Mayer, "Battle Studies" (Columbia) [1/2 STAR out of 4]

Amid an infinite sea of rich, complex and at times challenging flavors, sometimes you just want a scoop of plain vanilla. There's nothing wrong with that, but even in the world of unfettered whiteness, there are degrees of quality, ranging from, say, a thick and creamy scoop of Ben & Jerry's to the generic, tasteless and ice-speckled stuff on deep discount at the supermarket.

Easy-listening coffee-house fixtures Norah Jones and John Mayer fall into the latter category. In both cases, this is nothing short of a crying shame, because each is capable of much better--30-year-old Jones with her sultry, smoky, sleepy-time jazz chanteuse vocals, and 32-year-old Mayer with his long-since-stifled grounding in credible electric blues. Yet on their fourth studio albums, both compromise their roots as never before, cheerfully yielding to the lowest-common-denominator demands of the pop machine to churn out buckets of blandness.

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Jones is slightly more successful than Mayer with "The Fall," a title clearly meant to evoke the encroaching gray stillness of the season rather than her commercial potential. Though she turns to producer Jacquire King, a veteran craftsmen of hipster-rock efforts by Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon, a minimalist cabaret sound and somnambulistic mood prevail, with guest collaborators such as Ryan Adams and Will Sheff of Okkervil River doing little to elevate the lulling conformity of the songwriting. Jones does mellow chill-out reasonably well, but after a few tracks of it, you're thinking, "Snorah." Things only really pick up midway through the disc on "It's Gonna Be," a hypnotic swampy groove a la Dr. John, which underscores that this still-young artist could do great things if only she challenged herself a bit.

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Meanwhile, though Mayer promises explosive excitement on "Battle Studies"--"Clouds of sulfur in the air/Bombs are falling everywhere/It's heartbreak warfare," he croons in the opening track--he veers closer to some unholy hybrid of Sting and Dave Matthews, and the romantic pap of the 10 original tracks fizzle like the embarrassing dud of a North Korean nuke. Laden with laughable romantic-schlock lyrics and trite, sappy melodies, these songs aim for the pathos of classic Carpenters but come closer to maudlin Barry Manilow. And no, neither the guest turn by Taylor Swift on "Half of My Heart" nor the two Boomer-courting covers--exceedingly lame, Lite-FM versions of the Cream via Robert Johnson standard "Crossroads" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire"--do a thing to elevate the dross.

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The expiration date for Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent, was obvious from the moment he made his mainstream debut with "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" in 2002: No matter how strong your ear for catchy hooks and thumping beats, there's only so much mileage you can get from the "baddest of the bad-ass gangstas" routine when we've heard it so many times before, especially when you have little to add besides endless prattle about how many times you've been shot and stabbed.

Fiddy tried to show a bit more range with "Curtis" in 2007, timed for a celebrated showdown on the pop charts with Kanye West's "Graduation." But you'll recall that West won, commercially and artistically. The melodramatically entitled "Before I Self Destruct" actually was recorded before "Curtis," but the "more personal" effort was swapped out for the darker disc at the last minute, and the 16 tracks here haven't grown any fresher while sitting on the shelf for last two years as 50 Cent's been busy selling vitamin water and courting Hollywood.

There are enticing moments, to be sure--it would be impossible not to have a few, with a top-dollar roster of production talent including DJ Premiere, Dr. Dre and Polow da Don. But the cameos by Eminem (on the tired and tossed-off "Psycho") and R&B superstar R. Kelly ("Could've Been You," one of two ill-advised Fiddy smooth jams) add nothing, and the millionaire businessman's rhymes about scheming bitches, treacherous drug dealers and his allegedly unrivaled ability to beat all rivals to a bloody pulp have never sounded more predictable, boring, contrived or thoroughly insincere.

Demo2DeRo: Derek Nelson

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In addition to bearing a striking and somewhat unsettling resemblance to a young John Mayer, Chicago singer and songwriter Derek Nelson at times skirts a similar "vaguely rootsy meets bland pop pandering" sound on some of the tracks from his debut EP, "Something Obscure," a six-song effort for which he seemingly spared no expense. (Recorded in Chicago, it was mixed at the famous alt-rock sanctum of Smart Studios in Madison, Wisc.)

Yet while a track such as "Tightrope Walker" is easily dismissed as romantic fluff, others such as "Sidestreets in London" have a more heartfelt lyrical approach and winning musical touches like melancholy violin and endearingly Dylanesque harmonica. In other words, it could go either way for this young aspirant--he's only got a handful of gigs under his belt to date--and one hopes he'll take the more challenging, less predictable path. Meanwhile, sample his music at www.dereknelsonmusic.com or www.myspace.com/derekchristophernelson.

Second only to Kurt Cobain, a decade and a half later, Jeff Buckley stands as the most influential--and tragic--musician to impact the fertile music scene of the '90s.

The son of '60s folk singer Tim Buckley, Jeff released only one studio album, "Grace" (1994), after rising from tiny clubs and coffeehouses such as Sin-é in Manhattan's East Village. In June 1997, he died at age 30 in a still mysterious drowning in the Wolf River in Memphis. But his slippery, soulful voice and penetrating songs continue to touch legions of fans, and his legend looms ever larger.

Buckley made his first appearance in Chicago in February 1994 at Uncommon Ground, which was still primarily a coffee house just north of Metro at Grace and Clark streets. The restaurant had opened in 1991 and begun booking music shortly thereafter, eager to fill what owner Mike Cameron calls "a huge hole in ground-zero emerging artist venues." (The venue has since expanded twice in its original location, and opened a second in Edgewater.)

UPDATED TUESDAY A.M.: Cal's alive and well (see below).

Though I hate to post rumors as news, the local music scene has been buzzing that two underground venues may be shutting its doors in the near future. (Calls to confirm both went unreturned.)

Cal's 400 Liquors on S. Wells has been serving as one of the cooler dive bars on the punk-rock underground for several years now, but several musicians who frequent the place say it's going out of business, and its MySpace page doesn't list any shows after Nov. 25 (which is not in itself unusual, as Cal's has never exactly been on top of publicizing its calendar).

According to Mike Feirstein of Cal's, the punk-rock dive is alive and well. He emailed:


Hey Jim, I don't know what local musicians feed you information, but they're wrong about Cal's closing. I love rumors though. Peppers (the little burger joint next door to us) closed this past week after being in business for over 20 years. Maybe that's what is fueling these rumors. A lot of Board of Trade morons are spreading stuff also. It's nice to get the press from you even though it's an ill rumored falsehood without any legitimate facts other than what 2 musicians who frequent the bar report. In fact I urge you to come down some weekend and see a show. ... Thanks for caring. I think I'll update the myspace page for the next few months.

Meanwhile, the calendar is equally empty for the coming weeks at Sonotheque, the hipster venue at the cutting edge of electronic dance music on Chicago Avenue at the fringes of Wicker Park.

It would indeed be a loss to the local music scene if both venues are going under. Anyone out there have the facts? (I'd love to be proved wrong on both counts.)

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Whether one is charitable and inclined to say that Lollapalooza is making a (better late than never) effort to incorporate the desires of the Chicago music community and the rest of its customers, or more cynical and prone to the view that, as confirmed my by interview with talent buyer and co-owner Marc Geiger a while back, the brain trust behind the giant musical Walmart on the lake has never really had any vision for the thing beyond raking in the Benjamins, it's interesting to note the festival's current invitation to us to "Be the Booking Agent" (coming to me originally via the ever-diligent Tankboy at Chicagoist).

"Tell us who you'd put on next year's Lollapalooza lineup, happening August 6-8, 2010. Give us your Top 5 artists -- monster headliners to bands we've never even heard of -- from rock to avant-garde, indie to hip-hop, and all the sounds in between. Speak up by November 10. We'll collect all of your ideas, then see what we can make happen," the invitation reads, before asking for (one presumes) valuable demographic data about us voters and then offering the opportunity to pick as many as five (five!) acts to fill Grant Park next summer.

Well, thanks, fellas. Are you also going to share your commissions?

Meanwhile, a petition is making the rounds urging, "Save Chicago music - You can help!"

"Music, arts and cultural programs presented by the city of Chicago are threatened by severe budget cuts," it notes. "We can't let this happen--our city is known around the world for its free music programming that not only brings enjoyment to hundreds of thousands of fans and adds to the richness of our civic culture, but also generates jobs and income for local businesses.

"If you value programs like Blues Fest, Jazz Fest, the World Music Festival, SummerDance and Millennium Park concerts including Music Without Borders, Downtown Sound and much more (see below for a list), please do your part. City budget hearings are underway, and you can make a difference. If you do nothing, these programs could be cut back sharply."

While some would say the world (or at least Chicago) might be better off without Blues Fest, there is no denying the value of the burgeoning cutting-edge music programming at Millennium Park, which recently has included Andrew Bird, Shellac, the Dirty Projectors, Calexico, the Feelies, Red Red Meat, Tortoise, Chuck D and the Bomb Squad and more.

The full text of the petition follows the jump, and it also can be found posted here.

Weezer, "Raditude" (Geffen) [3 STARS out of 4]

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As is perhaps inevitable with any band that's built a 15-year career and an eight-album discography, fans have been grousing that "Weezer should go back to being Weezer" for years now. With its last release in 2008, its third self-titled disc or "the Red Album," the alt-era survivors and emo progenitors made a partial detour from the arena rock of recent years to return to the willfully naïve, exuberantly bouncy, heart-on-sleeve pop of their first self-titled disc and 1994 debut--though even gems such as "Heart Songs" weren't enough to please the grousers.

The only thing that could make them happy, it seems, would be "Pinkerton, Part 2." But bandleader and primary songwriter River Cuomo would be the first to tell you he could never really return to the troubled period of his life that produced that uniquely soul-baring epic, even if he wanted to.

With the wonderfully titled "Raditude," Cuomo appears to have stopped worrying about his history and fan base and begun to simply indulge his love for and mastery of pop song craft, in particular as it's practiced on the pop charts circa 2009. Though his nasal voice and the band's essential guitar-bass-drums attack will always mark his latest collection of songs as Weezer product, Cuomo could well have sold some of this material to, say, Lady Gaga (the band has been covering her "Poker Face" live of late) or any number of current hip-hop, R&B or pop chart-toppers (Cuomo also wrote a tune for Katy Perry). Guest producers include Polow Da Don,; Weezer has fleshed out and glossed up the poignant and brilliant "Can't Stop Partying," a collaboration with Jermaine Dupri first heard on a 2008 demos collection, with a much snazzier groove and a cameo by Lil Wayne (Weezer and Weezy, side by side!) and "I'm Your Daddy" is the best R. Kelly song that Kelly never wrote.

Of course, Weezer being Weezer, there also are some songs that couldn't have been done anyone else, in particular "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" and "Put Me Back Together," as well as a mind-boggling detour or two, including the sitar-powered Bollywood jam, "Love Is the Answer." It all combines to make what may be the most uneven and inconsistent album of the group's career, yet it also is one of its most entertaining and just plain fun.

Demo2DeRo: Jesse Palter & the Alter Ego

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It's hard to ignore a pitch like, "Think pop like Coca-Cola, think raw fun like Ecstasy, think catchy like a lacrosse stick," if only because you want to counter, "No way this band is going to sound like that much fun!" But sure enough, Jesse Palter & the Alter Ego deliver on those promises with a strong four-song EP currently streaming on the Web at www.myspace.com/jessepalterthealterego and www.palterego.com.

Vocalist Jesse Palter and multi-instrumentalist Sam Barsh began their collaboration in 2006. Both had enviable reputations in the jazz world--Palter was named "Outstanding Jazz Vocalist" for three years in a row at the Detroit Music Awards before moving to Chicago, while Barsh has played with names such as Cassandra Wilson, Bobby McFerrin and the Brand New Heavies--but the goal of the Alter Ego was to bring their considerable chops to the often simplistic genre of dance-pop, creating irresistible hooks and undeniable grooves that are as smart and sophisticated as they are silly good-time fun.

In other words, Lady Gaga, watch out! (The band recently played Martyr's; watch its Web sites for other upcoming gigs.)

Bon Jovi at Soldier Field, July 30

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Coming on the heels of U2's announcement of a return engagement to the giant toilet bowl on Lake Michigan that once was this city's grand and noble Soldier Field, New Jersey hair-hoppers gone country-popsters Bon Jovi have announced that they, too, will play the venue next summer, on July 30, under the auspices of the second biggest national concert promoters, AEG Live.

(The Austin, TX, promoters behind Lollapalooza, C3 Presents, won a deal with the city to bring more entertainment to Soldier Field more than a year ago, but they have as yet done nothing with it. That, however, is another story.)

Bon Jovi tickets go on sale Monday, Nov. 16, at 10 a.m. through www.ticketmaster.com, (312) 559-1212. Regular ticket prices were not announced. There also are VIP and Fan Club packages available starting at 9 p.m. tonight through www.bonjovi.com.

So, you ask, isn't it odd for next year's big summer concerts to be coming on sale before Chicago has even seen the first snow of this season? What's up with that?

Well, you buy your ticket and you pay your money now (plus egregious Ticketmaster service fees, of course), and your hard-earned cash sits for 9 months in the bank accounts of the promoters, the bands and the ticket sellers, accruing interest that might otherwise have gone into your bank account.

Better Jon Bon Jovi and Bono eke out a few more dollars than their fans keep that money, right? Because they really need it for the mortgages on their third or fourth vacation homes, no doubt.

Jesus Lizard to celebrate New Year's Eve at Metro

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If you are concerned you won't have gotten enough of the mighty noise delivered by Chicago's reunited Jesus Lizard after its two shows at Metro later this month, the club has announced that the band also will perform there on New Year's Eve.

The original lineup of David Yow, Duane Denison, David Wm Sims and Mac McNeilly will be joined by openers Disappears, and tickets will go on sale at noon Saturday, Nov. 7, via www.metrochicago.com and at the Metro box office. Tickets are $51 in advance and $61 the day of show.

Scotland Yard Gospel Choir: On the mend

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In addition to being an extraordinarily talented group of singers, songwriters and musicians, as well as some of the nicest people you'll meet on the Chicago rock scene, the biggest reason for the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir's success is that no local band works harder.

One of the greatest frustrations 29-year-old bandleader Elia Einhorn has experienced since the catastrophic crash the group suffered on Sept. 24 is that he hasn't been able to walk the streets hanging fliers promoting the benefit concerts the group's peers have been quick to mount on its behalf.

"I went out to put up some posters for the Halloween benefit, and I hurt my muscles just putting up fliers, so I've been in bed the last couple of days," Einhorn said with a sigh late last week. "I'm not used to being laid up like this--postering is in my blood!--and I just thought, 'Oh, I can go out and walk around a little bit.' But I pushed myself too far. It was a good lesson: I have to slow down... at least for a little while."

This weekend's picks: Bible of the Devil, Kool Keith

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"Thousands of miles of bad road, hundreds of shows raging, questionable or both, countless broken hearts and battered eardrums, and infinite beers later," as the hard-rocking Chicago band says, Bible of the Devil will celebrate its first decade on the local rock scene on Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Cobra Lounge, 235 N. Ashland. Ironhead and High Spirits open starting at 9 p.m., and admission is free. Oh, and the band is taking requests from longtime fans at botdmusic@gmail.com, noting, "If we can remember it, we'll try to play it!"

Whether it's been as a member of Ultramagnetic MCs, as Black Elvis or as Dr. Octagon, rapper Kool Keith has long been one of the most creative, innovative and wonderfully weird forces in hip-hop. He'll perform at Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State, after opening sets by Shala and Robust starting at 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7. Tickets are $20 via www.ticketweb.com; for more information, call (312) 949-0121 or visit www.reggieslive.com.

U2 Ticket Onsale Info

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As reported earlier, U2 will return to Chicago for a repeat engagement at Soldier Field on July 6. The local office of giant national concert promoter Live Nation has just announced that tickets will go on sale a week from today, on Monday, Nov. 9, via LiveNation.com and at all Ticketmaster outlets.

Prices are $252.00, $97.00, $57.00 and $32.00, plus egregious service fees.

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