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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

January 2010 Archives

Enduring the 52nd annual Grammy Awards

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Veering away from their stated mission "to honor artistic achievement... without regard to album sales or chart position," the 52nd annual Grammy Awards instead embraced the "American Idol" pop mainstream Sunday during one of the longest but least substantial nights in its history.

Broadcast live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles and clocking in at an interminable 3 1/2 hours, most of the show was given over to variety show-quality live performances and pointless speechifying, with a mere nine prizes actually given out on air. A larger number than ever of the 109 total Grammys were handed out during the un-televised ceremony that preceded the broadcast.

The biggest winner was Beyoncé, who claimed four golden gramophones early on (best female R&B vocal performance, best traditional R&B vocal performance, best R&B song and best contemporary R&B album), then added best pop vocal performance ("Halo") and the prestigious song of the year honor for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)."

But Beyoncé was denied a sweep of the biggest honors when they unnaturally radiant Taylor Swift took album of the year for "Fearless," adding to wins for best female country vocal performance, best country song and best country album.

Increasingly ubiquitous and increasingly annoying, Swift performed a medley where the centerpiece was a head-scratching duet with Stevie Nicks on "Rhiannon." Sorry, but I think Kanye West was right about Swift being undeserving of all the hype when he bum-rushed her acceptance speech at the much more entertaining MTV Video Music Awards.

Inexplicably surrounded by a phalanx of space-age storm troopers, Beyoncé performed a histrionic rendition of her own "If You Were a Boy" that, just as inexplicably, also included a bit of "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morrissette.

Of the other key prizes, best new artist went to bland country bumpkins the Zac Brown Band, who opened their performance with an a cappella rendition of "America the Beautiful." And, briefly derailing the pop express, Kings of Leon claimed a surprising victory for record of the year for "Use Somebody." The all-in-the-family Nashville rockers also won best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals and best rock song.

Multiple nominee and entertaining button-pusher Lady Gaga, who arrived on the red carpet looking like a psychedelic tooth fairy, won two prizes: best dance recording and best electronic/dance album.

Claiming one more honor to bolster her standing as the new Madonna, Gaga opened the show with an elaborate production number on "Pokerface" that found her simultaneously providing the quintessential 2010 pop moment and mocking the superficiality of the star-making machine as she was literally fed into the foundry amid a burst of flames. She resurfaced, a little crispier for her troubles, to duet with Sir Elton John on her own "Speechless" and his chestnut "Your Song."

It was the highlight of the show, but unfortunately, there still were 200 minutes to go.

Also heavy favorites throughout the night: cartoon hip-poppers the Black Eyed Peas, who went into prime time carrying three prizes: best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals, best pop vocal album and best short form music video.

Continuing the show's futuristic theme with a troupe of robot dancers, pop's answer to the X-Men performed an underwhelming medley of "I'm a Be"--complete with audio drop-out during the cuss words--and the effervescent "I Got A Feeling."

Other winners included Eminem (best rap album, "Relapse"), the French dance-pop band Phoenix (best alternative album, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"), Green Day (best rock album, "21st Century Breakdown") and Northwest grad and Second City album Stephen Colbert (best comedy album, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!"), who made the night's best acceptance speech quip when he said, "It was a Christmas album, so obviously I should thank Jesus Christ."

With most of the categories featuring local artists decided before the telecast, it was not a good night for Chicago. Though he was nominated for six awards--all of them in relatively minor categories, with his brilliant "808s & Heartbreak" overlooked for the best album nod it richly deserved--West claimed only two: best rap song and best rap/sung collaboration for "Run This Town," his jam with Jay-Z and Rihanna.

Local jazzman Kurt Elling won best jazz vocal album for "Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music Of Coltrane and Hartman." But soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples, alternative-country chanteuse Neko Case, the genre-defying Wilco, veteran rapper Common and gospel great Smokie Norful were among the local nominees who lost out in their respective categories.

In a "jump the shark" moment from which they likely never will recover, aging pop-punk heroes Green Day performed "21 Guns" with the cast from the new Broadway musical, "American Idiot," reducing a great song to a pompous, bombastic, "Up With People" meets "Rent" sing-along. (Can this possibly be the same band that once gave us "Dookie"?)

Pink crooned "Glitter in the Air," an atypically demure and saccharine ballad, while indulging in some Cirque du Soleil acrobatics and wearing what amounted to a yard or two of white ribbon. Lady Antebellum was pleasant but snooze-inducing, and just as sleepy was the obligatory Haiti benefit performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" by Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige.

Veteran hair-hoppers Bon Jovi rocked it like it was 1986, the Dave Matthews Band was more bloated than ever thanks to the addition of strings, choir and marching band on "You & Me," pairing best R&B album winner Maxwell with legendary diva Roberta Flack was an idea that sounded better on paper than onstage and the Jamie Foxx-led, Slash-augmented hip-hop jam was the epitome of sloppy overindulgence.

Later on, another all-star hip-hop performance by Lil Wayne, Eminem and Drake (with Blink 182's Travis Barker for some reason on drums) was so rife with nasty language that more of the audio was silenced than broadcast.

But by far the most over-the-top moment during a night in which subtlety was an alien concept was the mismatched all-star sing-along to Michael Jackson's mawkish "Earth Song," featuring Celine Dion, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, Usher and Chicago's Jennifer Hudson.

The King of Pop definitely deserved a better tribute. Then again, I never made it to Target to pick up my "3-D Grammy Glasses" to experience the video as Jackson intended--though I suspect a pair of ear plugs would have been handier.

Grammy Time on Sunday... and the Hideout connection

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My preview is up on the Sun-Times site here.

(The photo, by the way, depicts Johnny Cash's 1986 award, sold to an anonymous bidder for $187,200 in auction at Sotheby's in 2004. It was the 20th time the award had changed hands.)

Several other things worth noting about this year's Grammy nominees: The proliferation of connections to everybody's favorite Chicago dive, the Hideout.

I will let co-owner Tim Tuten tell the story, as only he can in his inimitable way:

Of course I have to toot the Hideout's horn a little more to you. I think the Hideout has a great Grammy story this year.

* I think I already told you that the Hideout's long-time bartender / poster artist, Kathleen Judge was nominated for a Grammy for best album art for Neko's Middle Cyclone. She would be a great story!

* Neko Case was also a Hideout bartender at the Hideout, as was her Hideout bartender / background vocalist Kelly Hogan, Neko's bass player, Hideout bartender Tom Ray of Devil in a Woodpile (now Sanctified Grumblers) played at the Hideout at least two to four times a year.

* Honey Boy Edwards will receive a Grammy life-time achievement award this year. The Hideout has been his home bar for 10 years, where he plays with Devil in a Woodpile at least two to four times a year. He flew into Washington DC last year just to play our Inauguration Party. As Tipitina's in New Orleans was Professor Longhair's final home, we have always felt the Hideout is the place where Honey Boy could receive the comfort and respect he so long deserved.

* Wilco's Jon Stirratt's sister Laurie was a long-time Hideout bartender.

* AND... Mavis Staples "Live: Hope at the Hideout" was recorded at the Hideout too!

The dream that we had at the Hideout in 1996 has really come true. To nurture unknown artists, to employ them, to help them pay their rent, and provide them with practice and performance space, so they could develop their art. Our Hideout goal was not just to say that the White Stripes (for example) played here, which they did, but to say that great artists lived, worked and created at the Hideout.

Thanks, Tim. If you ask me, you wuz robbed in the best spoken word category!

The Academy Is... celebrating its fifth anniversary

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Fellow travelers of Fall Out Boy and beneficiaries of an ever-growing following thanks to years of constant touring--including a high-profile slot on the 2006 Warped Tour--the members of the Chicago quintet The Academy Is... are pausing to take stock of everything they've accomplished during the whirlwind rush of the last few years.

Formed in the Chicago suburbs in 2002 by singer William Beckett and guitarist Mike Carden--with Michael Guy Chislett, Adam T. Siska and Andy Mrotek completing the current lineup--the group is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the release of its first album with a homecoming show next weekend. As the band gears up to return to the studio, it seemed like high time to catch up with Beckett.

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The following is a transcript of an interview conducted Thursday afternoon with representatives of the Department of Justice in response to a request for answers to numerous questions regarding its approval on Monday of the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation. This interview was conducted under the agreement that the responses would be attributed to the Justice Department, rather than naming the participants in the interview.

Q. I'd like to start by asking about the exclusivity agreements that Ticketmaster signs with almost every venue in America. The Department of Justice first investigated Ticketmaster during the Clinton administration, after which the government took no action. Pearl Jam famously was credited as spearheading that fight, though the Department of Justice actually went to the band instead of the band going to the Department of Justice. Because the band chose not to work with Ticketmaster, it couldn't play anywhere in the U.S. for almost two years, and it was one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. More than one independent promoter has said to me over the last few days--and throughout the yearlong consideration of this merger--that while those exclusivity agreements are still in place, there really can be no competition. During the press conference announcing this settlement, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney noted that 20 percent of those exclusivity agreements will expire this year. But that means that 80 percent of them will stay in place.

A. The point is that 20 percent of them come up every year, so that while a lot of venues have these exclusive provisions with Ticketmaster--or with other ticketing companies, for that matter--that they typically don't run longer than five to seven years on average. Roughly 20 percent of them are coming up every year for renewal, so that provides an opportunity for the venues when their contracts come up to actually go out and renew them.

I also think it's important to recognize that the exclusive agreements are not just for the benefit of Ticketmaster, or insisted upon by Ticketmaster--that actually, in the course of our investigation in talking to a lot of venues, venues don't want to have more than one ticketing company, either. For some of them, a contract of a reasonable length in term of five years or something like that is actually a benefit to the venue itself in order to be able to have predictability in terms of those costs and expenses and know that, "O.K., we've settled now who are ticketer is and we [won't have to deal with that again until] our contract expires. So I wouldn't consider them to be just unilaterally imposed by Ticketmaster; that certainly wasn't what we found in the course of our investigation.

Q. I know that venues prefer these deals. But in Chicago, every major concert venue in the area has a deal with Ticketmaster, and if a band or a promoter or the combination of the two wants to play in this market to 2,000 or 20,000 people, and they chose for whatever reasons not to work with Ticketmaster, they just can't do it. It just seems like there can't be competition if these contracts remain in place.

A. I definitely understand that point, but I don't think it's something related to the merger itself, which is what we were investigating. Those agreements, to the extent they exist in your market, all predate Live Nation and are unrelated to the merger with Live Nation and I don't think are directly affected by that.

Q. It seems to me that it is part of the merger, in terms of the vertical integration. Live Nation, now that it is Ticketmaster and vice versa, is not going to not renew with Ticketmaster when the ticketing contracts on the 140 venues that it owns expire. You can say, "Well, that's not every venue in America." But in fact, Live Nation owns the vast majority of the outdoor amphitheatres in America, so that entire tier of the business is going to be locked into Live Nation and Ticketmaster.

A. Well, they would have been locked into Live Nation before, right? Irrespective of the merger, those Live Nation venues were going to be controlled by Live Nation.

Q. Sure. But let's say the Department of Justice had said, "One thing we think has to be done for this merger to take place is for Live Nation to divest of its venues. It's promoting bands, it's managing bands, it's selling tickets--competition can't exist if it also own the venues." If Live Nation had to divest all the amphitheatres, the new owners of the amphitheaters would have been free to choose between these three ticketing companies that are being created: Live Nation, AEG or Comcast-Spectacor.

A. The problem is that there isn't a good basis in antitrust laws for challenging vertical integration just sort of for the sake of challenging vertical integration. It's one thing where you have the ticketing company that dominates--Ticketmaster, which has a level of dominance over the ticketing business--but if you start looking at promotion and venue ownership and concerts, and those are things that are not directly affected by horizontal competition as a result of the merger, when you start talking about those vertical theories, aligning the different chains, you get torn between whether that can provide some real benefits to consumers versus whatever less competitive outcomes might happen.

Q. Let me cite the example of an antitrust ruling against vertical integration that is being quoted by a lot of consumer advocates and independent promoters: the Supreme Court ruling in 1948 in "United States vs. Paramount Pictures, et al." At that point, the Supreme Court said, "Hey, Hollywood movie studios, you make the movies; you distribute the movies; you cannot also own the theaters that show the movies." With Live Nation now, we'll have them creating or at least managing the content, distributing or promoting the content across the country, selling the tickets--not to mention the T-shirts and concessions and the rest--and owning the venues.

A. It's definitely true that that's the result of the merger. Paramount is a bit of a different era in antitrust law, I think you'd have to say. I don't think it would be as simple a case to bring in 2010.

Q. The Department of Justice does not think there would be the basis of a Supreme Court challenge here?

A. I don't know. Obviously, what we thought was the case that we saw competitive harm in was the case that involved the ticketing industry. In other areas, we certainly heard from many people presenting complaints along the lines that you are setting forth, and we felt that we didn't have the evidence to challenge on those fronts.

Q. I'm curious about the firewall provision in section nine of the settlement ruling: It's one paragraph. Let's say Jam Productions in Chicago wants to bring a fantastic band to town; it's competing with Live Nation and AEG to host that concert, and miraculously, it wins. It has to use Ticketmaster to sell the tickets, because as I said, Ticketmaster is locked into every major venue in Chicago until those exclusivity agreements expire. Jam's biggest competitor, Live Nation--a company that, court testimony shows, once expressed its desire to "crush, kill and destroy" Jam--is now going to know how Jam put that deal together and how it does business, and it's going to make money off of Jam's work via those egregious service fees that it tacks on to every ticket. How does the firewall actually help Jam?

A. The firewall is designed to protect the confidential information that sort of arises out of the ticketing. If Jam goes and promotes a concert at a venue that is ticketed by Ticketmaster, it stops that confidential information from being shared with the rest of the combined merged company. So they can't take the data that comes out of the ticketing relationship with Jam or the ticketing event that's being promoted by Jam and take that information and use it in their promotion business or use it in their artist management business to compete against Jam, or for any other reason, for that matter. That's the purpose and the intent of the firewall, to protect the people who need to go in and have a show put on at a venue that is ticketed by Ticketmaster, but who are competing with the Live Nation promotion business, or whose artists are competing with the [Live Nation-owned] Front Line Management side of the company.

Q. There are no specific provisions in the government ruling about how the firewall will be enforced, though it does say that people won't be able to have access to information from a competing promoter unless they need it as part of their job.

A. Right. The people in the ticketing business of course need access to the ticketing information, because their job is related to ticketing. It just prohibits those people from taking that information and moving it over into the other side of the business, into the concert promotion or artist management business.

Q. But who will enforce that?

A. Obviously, the Justice Department, the antitrust division which is headed by Christine Varney, will enforce it. There are substantial provisions in the final judgment that give us the right to go in and request information and documents, to request regular reports, to conduct investigations if we find that there is any evidence of a violation or if we want to assure ourselves that there is no evidence of any violation. We have those rights to affectively and aggressively enforce the decree and we will certainly take advantage of those provisions.

Q. But it's not as if there is going to be a Department of Justice hall monitor sitting on a stool in between the door from the ticketing office at Live Nation and the door to the promotion office at Live Nation.

A. Of course there's not going to be someone in their actual building, but there will be someone with the right to look at their emails and interview them and investigate any possible wrongdoing that they might commit.

That's an important point, and don't take that lightly. We do actively monitor consent decrees. We really do have a staff that does this, and will really monitor what's going on in the industry. We have a long history and experience in dealing with these kinds of things. It is an important point and I wouldn't take it lightly.

Q. My experience as a reporter covering these two companies for the last 15 or 20 years has been that transparency is not their strong suit. They don't answer questions, they don't respond to the press, it is very difficult for a consumer to find a complaint number to express dissatisfaction with Ticketmaster or Live Nation...

A. But there's a difference between reporters and the Department of Justice, who can use law enforcement, the courts, they can be held in civil contempt, they can be fined, so it's a little different.

We put a lot of time and effort into enforcing decrees, and it's very possible to get to the bottom of these things when you're trying to find out the facts regarding a particular incident. It might be that there's no public number for the public to call up, but there's definitely a number that we can call if we need information, and we can get documents, information, take depositions, and conduct any kind of investigation we might need to in order to enforce the decree, and we will.

Q. Let me ask more generally: There is a well-documented history than many congressmen and senators and consumer advocates referenced during the congressional hearings on the merger last year of neither of these companies being particularly consumer-friendly. Yet Ms. Varney several times during the press conference said this merger settlement will be good for consumers, there will be competition and prices will come down. I am having a hard time squaring the history with those statements.

A. What we saw when we looked at the merger was an opportunity to really protect competition by the divestitures that we ordered and by the conduct provisions that we have, and obviously when you do that kind of protection of competition, that is going to force the companies to engage in more pro-consumer behavior and behave more responsibly. That's what we were focused on enabling and that's what we think the decree successfully does.

Q. AEG and Comcast-Spectacor obviously have said they support this merger, since the settlement gives each of them a piece of Ticketmaster's business. But what about the fact that every other remaining independent promoter of size in the United States opposes this? There seems to have been no consideration given to the independent promoters.

A. I wouldn't say that there was no consideration. We talked to a lot of different people, and obviously, we don't disclose exactly who we talked to, but I can certainly assure you that we talked to a lot of these companies and tried to take into consideration the best we could the facts as they appeared to us and as we learned them in our investigation. That's why we put together a decree that has three prongs to it, that sets up AEG in the ticketing business, which is someone smaller promoters can use if they want to; and Comcast-Spectacor, which gets all the assets from the Paciolan business, and when you put those together with the behavioral provisions, you put all those things together, they don't just protect AEG and Comcast. They protect all the promoters and all the venue owners, from the largest ones down to the smallest ones.

Q. But you guys must be reading the press: From coast to coast, every single independent promoter that I've seen quoted in any publication, or the many that I've interviewed myself, all are against this settlement and really hate it. I have not seen a single quote from a smaller promoter saying, "I'll be really happy now to have three choices for ticketing, and I guess this merger isn't going to be as bad as I initially feared." Not a single one!

A. I'm not sure how to answer, or if that's really a question. All I can tell you is what we found in our investigation.

Q. I'm asking that if every independent promoter in America seems to disagree with the ruling, is that cause for concern for the Department of Justice to consider if maybe it missed something?

A. All I would say is that we've heard all of the concerns expressed all the way throughout our investigation. I don't think we're learning new things by the things that are coming out and people are saying in public. We took it all into account in the decision that ultimately we made.

Q. O.K. Now, I'm in Chicago, and you can't be a reporter in Chicago and not always have one eye on politics. Ticketmaster's board of directors included President Obama's longtime friend Julius Genachowski, until he resigned to accept the appointment to chair the FCC. Live Nation's board of directors includes Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, the brother of the President's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Did either of them file letters in support of the merger?

A. There was no... We don't make our decisions that way. We make our decisions based on the facts and the law and the facts that are before us.

Q. I understand that. I'm just wondering if either of them, as part of the mountains of information on the merger that was considered pro and con, if either of these members of the companies' boards weighed in?

A. Again, I think if you want to ask questions of who might have weighed in, we don't talk about who. We get comments from the outside from people as we look at transactions. We don't talk about that. But obviously, anybody who's weighed in, whether it's you or your neighbor, if they want to talk about it, it's up to them. But this decision was made at the Department of Justice by the career staff and the folks in the antitrust decision, and it was based on the facts. There was no influence from anyone--no influence at all, it was all based on the facts.

Q. On the micro-level, Ticketmaster owns TicketWeb, which does ticketing on the level of clubs down to 100 or 150 people. TicketWeb does its best to mask its connection to Ticketmaster, and in fact its Web design goes out of its way to look as if it's done by a punk rocker in his basement. I've talked to several small club owners since the decision on the merger who've said that they don't want to do business with TicketWeb anymore, now that it's part of Live Nation, and they want to get out of their contracts. This goes back to the issue of, "I thought I was doing business with one company, and now I'm in bed with another."

A. That can happen in any merger. It's not an antitrust issue in the sense of competition being lost in the merger as a result of a change in the ownership. In any merger, a company may get bought by someone that somebody else doesn't like and doesn't want to do business with anymore. What we're trying to do is preserve when those people's contracts are up that they have good choices to go to and good opportunities to take advantage of. I know we've seen at the club level that there are tons and tons and tons of competitors out there that provide ticketing services for those types of venues. Obviously, we have no real basis to go in and break all the Ticketmaster contracts that they have with venues.

Q. You could have asked them to divest.

A. I don't think that that was really an area where we saw a level of concentration or competitive concern that you see at the bigger venues. If people are telling you they'd like to leave for someone else, we never heard from people at that level who felt that they didn't have anyone else to go to.

Q. What about the management component? That wasn't ever a consideration for divesting?

A. You can look at market shares and things like that in management, but the area where we found the competitive concern was in ticketing, and that's what we focused on in our remedy and that's where we required the divestitures and other behavioral provisions. Obviously, we looked at the management in the context of the effect it might have in the ticketing market, and along with the promotional it's the reason you have those firewall and data portability and behavioral restrictions, but in and of itself, it's a market that... well, there are a lot of managers out there. Even thought Front Line is large, and it may be even larger than all of its competitors, it doesn't actually have a very large share of the overall market when you look at it.

Demo2DeRo: Model N

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"If the Velvet Underground and Uncle Tupelo joined forces in a Chicago garage band, you'd get close to the sound of Model N," guitarist Travis Rejman wrote in his pitch to this column. That's a big boast, but on its first full-length album, the recently released "Correspondence Battleship," the quartet comes close to fulfilling that kind of promise with a dynamic, emotional, sophisticated and multi-layered sound.

There's a bit of old-school Chicago nepotism in this band--Travis' brother Rob is on acoustic bass and his wife Gia Biagi is on vocals and guitar--and those family ties may account for the impressive maturity and focused cohesion of such an otherwise young and under-the-radar combo (it's only been playing with drummer Michael DiMaria since 2007, with one earlier EP to its credit). Simply put, it's as impressive a musical introduction as I've ever received from any bubbling-under Chicago band, and if the group is half as impressive onstage as it is in the studio, it deserves to rise to the top of the local scene.

Model N's debut album is streaming on its Web site at www.model-n.com, and the band performs at the Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln, on Thursday [Feb. 4] and at Subterranean, 2011 W. North, on Sunday, Feb. 21.

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With a pioneering sound mixing jazz, pop and world rhythms and a unique sing-speak delivery that made every line sound like a lewd double entendre, Serge Gainsbourg was a French cabaret artist whose best work was done in the late '60s. Thanks to hip rockers such as Beck, Stereolab and Luna, he was the subject of a celebratory rediscovery in the mid-'90s, but his influence now looms larger than ever in the musical underground, as evidenced by these two recent releases.

The daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and his muse and frequent duet partner, British actress Jane Birkin, Charlotte has made her biggest impact to date as an actress, with credits including Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" and the recent "Antichrist." But she also has been recording since age 13, and for her third and best album "IRM," she paired with Beck to produce a set of 13 tunes that are as strikingly original and heartfelt musically as they are lyrically.

There are hints of her father's dark pop, smoky jazz and conversational vocals, as well as touches of the melancholy electronic folk-rock of Beck's classic "Sea Change." But there also is a strength and self-assurance in Gainsbourg's limited but distinctive voice that marks her as her own artist. The poignant themes of songs such as "Heaven Can Wait" also resonate, chronicling her near-death experience after a brain injury resulting from a water-skiing accident ("IRM" is the French acronym for an MRI). The effect is like intimate journal entries from the other side.

Embracing the campier side of Serge Gainsbourg's musical legacy, Eddie Argos, moonlighting from his role as front man of comical indie-rockers Art Brut, and his girlfriend, Dyan Valdes, seek to replicate the Gainsbourg/Birkin couplings on their 12-song debut as Everybody Was in the French Resistance. Every tune was conceived as an "answer song"--sometimes very loosely, a la Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville"--to a classic pop ditty by a diverse group of artists ranging from the Mamas and the Papas and the Archies to Kanye West and Avril Lavigne.

The musical backings are strictly minimalist four-track bedroom rock, and Argos' sung/spoken delivery can get a bit monotonous, as it does with Art Brut. But Valdes' similarly narrow vocals at least offer a bit of variety, and the cheerful, hooky exuberance of a couple of devoted music geeks expressing their love for music and one another while goofing around in the studio ultimately is hard to resist.

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UPDATED 4:45 P.M. TUESDAY WITH JUSTICE DEPARTMENT COMMENTS


UPDATED 7:45 A.M. WEDNESDAY WITH COMMENTS FROM INDIE PROMOTER SETH HURWITZ

After a year of quiet deliberations behind closed doors while everyone from angry congressmen to consumer advocates to Bruce Springsteen shouted in opposition outside, the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday gave its blessing to the merger of two of the most controversial companies in the music industry: giant national concert promoters Live Nation and monopolistic ticket brokers Ticketmaster.

The ruling--which can be read here--cleared the way for the creation of a new company called Live Nation Entertainment that will own more than 140 concert venues worldwide and sell 140 million tickets to 22,000 concerts annually. It will dominate every aspect of the live music industry, setting prices while promoting shows from small clubs to giant arenas, selling the tickets, concessions and merchandise for those gigs and managing the performers who play them.

The Justice Department did impose several conditions on the deal: Ticketmaster must sell one small subsidiary, Paciolan, to sports promoters Comcast-Spectacor, and it must share its ticketing software with the second largest national concert promoter, AEG Live. In theory, Ticketmaster, Comcast and AEG will now compete, offering venues three choices for ticketing, and possibly resulting in lower service fees.

"This settlement will preserve competition in primary ticketing and maintain incentives to innovate and discount, thereby benefiting consumers," Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney said when announcing the ruling. "This is the right result."

But many artists, consumer groups, industry analysts and music fans strongly disagree. "I don't know that is going to create the kind of even competitive field that was intended," Standard & Poor's equity analyst Tuna Amobi told the Reuters news service. Added Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League: "We remain concerned that these two companies, with a history of anti-consumer behavior, will abide only by the letter, and not the spirit of the settlement agreement."

The major stumbling block to the scenario of three competing ticket brokers is that Ticketmaster has locked almost all of the major concert venues in America into exclusivity agreements of five to ten years, and venues will not be able to entertain competing offers until those expire. These agreements were at the heart of the Justice Department investigation of Ticketmaster in the mid-'90s, famously championed by Pearl Jam, though the federal government ultimately took no action at that time.

In Chicago, every major concert venue has an exclusive deal with Ticketmaster, from the United Center to the Allstate Arena to the Chicago Theatre. And many smaller clubs do as well, via Ticketmaster subsidiary TicketWeb, including hot spots such as the Empty Bottle, Martyr's and Reggie's.

The exclusivity agreements are not addressed in the new Justice Department ruling. Nor does it address other hot-button consumer issues, such as the fact that Ticketmaster service fees can add as much as 50 percent to the face price of a ticket, or charges that the company increasingly is holding back a percentage of seats for some shows to sell to the highest bidders in the secondary or scalpers' market.

Questioned about the exclusivity agreements at a press conference, Varney admitted the government is not making Ticketmaster abandon them. "What we're trying to do, as the ticketing contracts expires, which is coming up [for] 20 percent... this year, we are trying to make sure that there are competitive alternatives [and assure that Ticketmaster] cannot behave in an anticompetitive manner." As for after-market sales, she said, "Ticket resale was not part of this investigation."

The government also gave short shrift to the biggest concern of the few remaining independent concert promoters: that Live Nation will now have an unfair advantage when competing to promote the same artist, because the giant company will have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of its smaller competitors via its ticketing arm. The Justice Department expects Live Nation Entertainment to erect a "firewall" between its concert promotion business and its ticketing business, but no specific requirements for this are laid out in the federal ruling.

No specific requirements for this are laid out in the federal ruling, but a Justice Department spokesperson maintained that, "We will be vigilant in enforcing the firewall."

Widely considered to be the first major test of the Obama administration's stance on antitrust issues, the Justice Department's ruling is similar to many issued during the Clinton and Bush years, including the settlement of the Microsoft case. The government is trusting an ever-expanding big business to police itself and act in consumers' interests.

For followers of politics as practiced in Chicago, it is hard not to suspect some successful influence peddling. In addition to employing the most high-powered Democratic lobbyists in Washington, Live Nation's board members include Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel, brother of President Obama's chief of staff and former North Side congressman Rahm Emanuel, while Ticketmaster's board of directors included the President's Harvard classmate and transition team leader Julius Genachowski, until he resigned to become chairman of the FCC.

What does the merger mean for the local music scene?

Chicago is unique among most major music markets in the U.S. as the home of one of the few remaining regional promoters, Jam Productions, which has been locked in a cutthroat competition with Live Nation for the last 15 years.

Live Nation promotes many of the biggest arena and stadium concerts here. It owns the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park and the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisc., and it controlled the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island until its contract there expired at the end of last summer's concert season. It also owns the House of Blues, though it has been frustrated in its attempts to purchase another large club or mid-sized theater.

Jam owns the Vic and Riviera theaters and the Park West, and it promotes the majority of shows at other mid-size venues such as the Aragon Ballroom and the U.I.C. Pavilion. It increasingly is losing out on larger arena shows to Live Nation as that company controls major artists' tours from coast to coast.

"I'm not sure how this ruling benefits the consumer, nor any of the competitors," Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson said on Tuesday. "The Justice Department focused on one aspect of the vertical integration: ticketing. They didn't focus on venues, on promoters, on merchandise companies, on artists' managers or on any other aspect.

"We showed the Department of Justice how ticket prices increased from an average of $25 in 1996 to well over $60 last year, which in my view is a direct cause of the consolidation under Live Nation. We showed how we at Jam used to produce over 160 arena concerts and we're down to 30 or 40 a year. We showed, through Live Nation's own documents, how their food and beverage prices are higher than Major League Baseball, the NHL or the NFL. And we showed how when Live Nation entered the ticketing market in 2009, their convenience charges were higher than Ticketmaster's. So tell me how these increased prices have benefited the consumer?"

Mickelson is skeptical that AEG or Comcast will be able to compete with Ticketmaster, since Live Nation's brief and unsuccessful attempt to do the same last year was a major factor that ultimately led the two companies to merge.

"The merger is going to make it tough for any independent promoter to compete," Mickelson added. But he and the handful of other regional promoters making the effort--including John Scher in New York, Don Fox in New Orleans and Seth Hurwitz in Washington, D.C.--are unlikely to mount further legal challenges because of the staggering costs.

One thing Jam is considering is bringing its ticketing in house when contracts with Ticketmaster at the Vic, the Riv and the Park West expire at the end of 2011. The challenge will be competing with Live Nation without losing more business between now and then.

"I'd like to believe there still is a place for the independent entrepreneur--that's what we all believe in over here at Jam," Mickelson said. "But we'll see. It's tough to be competitive when both our hands are tied behind our back and we're facing a two-ton gorilla."

UPDATED WITH COMMENTS FROM SETH HURWITZ AFTER THE JUMP

All hail the red-haired individualist, La Roux

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While she certainly garnered much more publicity and made a much bigger splash on the U.S. pop charts, Lady Gaga wasn't the only striking female presence to make her mark on the music scene in 2009 with a distinctive, over-the-top image and an intoxicating mix of vintage synth-pop hooks and cutting-edge dance grooves.

With a French moniker that translates as "the (male) red-haired one," androgynous and otherworldly singer Eleanor "Elly" Jackson took the British pop scene by storm as the voice and public presence of La Roux, scoring major hits in the U.K. with the singles "In for the Kill" and "Bulletproof." She delivered on the promise of those tunes with a self-titled debut crafted with her musical partner, Ben Langmaid. And now, looking to expand the buzz that's been building since "La Roux" was released here last fall, she's making her live debut on these shores with an introductory tour that brings her to Lincoln Hall on Monday, Feb. 1.

Club-Hopping: Nick Oliveri, the Hudson Branch

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Best known as the former wild-man bassist of Queens of the Stone Age, a sometimes member of maniacal punk-rockers the Dwarves or the howling front man of his own band Mondo Generator, Nick Oliveri is showing a much quieter and more tender side of his musical personality on his new album "Death Acoustic," a set of spare home recordings collected over the last year. He performs on Monday, Feb. 1, at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, after opening sets by Weedeater Barstool Set, My Cold Dead Hand and Blackbox starting at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call (773) 489-3160 or visit www.doubledoor.com.

Building on roots in sensitive folk-rock, genteel early '60s pop and this city's post-rock scene, local quintet the Hudson Branch is becoming a bona fide Chicago buzz band. It tops an all-ages bill on Saturday, Jan. 30, at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, that starts with the Urbanites, Very Truly Yours and the Break at 6:30 p.m. The cover is $9; for more information, call (773) 549-4140 or visit www.metrochicago.com.

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In a move that gives an unprecedented amount of power in the concert industry to one mega-corporation, the U.S. Department of Justice has approved the merger of giant national concert promoters Live Nation and monopolistic ticket brokers Ticketmaster.

After nearly a year of review, the Justice Department held a briefing in Washington, D.C. on Monday to announce its endorsement of the new merged company, to be called Live Nation Entertainment, providing it meets several conditions, including licensing its ticketing software to competitors, selling off one small part of its ticketing business and agreeing not to penalize any venues that chose to do business with competing ticketing companies for the next 10 years.

The merger is expected to remake the concert industry in the U.S., further shifting the business from small regional promoters--the new company will own more than 140 concert venues around the world, selling 140 million tickets to some 22,000 concerts a year--and its approval was seen as the first major test of the Obama administration's position on anti-trust issues.

Ignoring the many complaints from consumer groups, artists and independent promoters--starting with those voiced at a contentious Senate hearing last winter and continuing in recent months via anti-merger Web sites such as TicketDisaster.org--the Justice Department contends that the merger will not hurt competition in the live music industry.

"I was prepared to litigate at any and all points, until a settlement was achieved that efficiently dealt with all our anti-competitive concerns," Christine Varney, head of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, said at the briefing.

Commenting on the conditions being imposed on the deal, Varney added, "It's going to benefit competition and benefit consumers. Generally when you see robust competition, you would expect to see prices coming down."

The conditions require that Ticketmaster sell one of its small subsidiary ticketing companies, Paciolan Inc., to the sports and entertainment company Comcast-Spectacor, and that it license its ticketing software to AEG Live, the second largest national concert promoter. In theory, Ticketmaster, Comcast and AEG will then be able to fairly compete in the ticketing business, offering venues three choices to sell their tickets.

However, the Justice Department does not seem to have addressed the fact that Ticketmaster has signed most major venues in the U.S. to long-term exclusivity agreements that prohibit them for using any other ticket broker. These exclusivity agreements were at the heart of the Justice Department investigation of the company in the mid-'90s, and though they were widely criticized by many artists, including Pearl Jam, no action ever was taken against Ticketmaster.

In the Chicago area, every major concert venue above the level of 1,500 seats--from theaters such as the Chicago, Auditorium, and Rosemont theaters to arenas including the United Center, the Allstate Arena, and the U.I.C. Pavilion--have exclusive deals with Ticketmaster.

"The conditions seem to be relatively benign," Tuna Amobi, an equity analyst at Standard & Poor's, told the Reuters news service. "There are no major divestitures required. I don't know that is going to create the kind of even competitive field that was intended."

"The DOJ has asked consumers, independent promoters, ticket brokers, artists and venue owners to take a very large leap of faith that the conditions imposed on the merger will improve competition and ultimately lead to greater choice and lower prices," Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, said in a statement released by TicketDisaster.org. "While we appreciate the efforts of the DOJ to extract meaningful concessions from the parties, we remain concerned that these two companies, with a history of anti-consumer behavior, will abide only by the letter, and not the spirit of the settlement agreement."

Chicago is one of the few major cities in the U.S. where an independent local promoter remains in vibrant competition with Live Nation for theater and arena shows. Jam Productions sells almost all of its tickets through Ticketmaster. Company officials have contended that Live Nation will now have an unfair advantage when competing to promote an artist's local appearance since it will now be one and the same company with Ticketmaster, and it will be privvy to information that will give it a competitive edge.

Jam executive Jerry Mickelson, who testified against the merger during last year's Senate hearings, did not respond to a request for comment, said he had not read the Department of Justice statement, so he could not comment yet.

More comments on the merger follow the jump.

Festival glut intensifies?

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Concert industry insiders have been talking about "festival glut" for several years now, questioning how many of these super-music fests the market will support, and predicting that the bottom eventually will drop out.

Today comes news that the Rothbury Music Festival, a four-day jam fest held in Michigan, will not take place this summer. It has been held on Independence Day weekend since 2008. The press release follows the jump.

OK, so maybe I'm biased pro-Conan...

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Seeing as how he's the only late-night host who'd ever be silly enough to put Greg Kot and me on TV, but I thought his final "Tonight Show" was brilliant, and it was fitting that it was dominated by music.

From Neil Young's moving rendition of "Long May You Run" to the Will Ferrell-led sign-off jam on "Free Bird" -- augmented by Billy Gibbons, Beck and Ben Harper -- the music did the talking. What else was left to say? Well, aside from Conan's classy thank-you to NBC(!), just Young's short but true interjection: "Thank you for all you've done for new music."

Hey, Conan, if you get bored during the next seven months, I'm sure we could use some help on "Sound Opinions." Sorry, though: We don't have a slot for Max.

Lilith Fair lineup expanded

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Best remembered as striking a blow for feminism in the mid-'90s as the original, traveling Lollapalooza tour became more and more of a testosterone-fest, Lilith Fair is coming back this summer as a multi-act tour that will hit more than 30 cities, including Chicago.

Dates have not yet been announced, but promoters did add some names to the lineup today, including country legend Loretta Lynn, pioneering hard-rockers Heart, cabaret jazzbo Norah Jones and indie oddity Cat Power.

They joined a long list of other acts, some previously announced, including A Fine Frenzy, Ann Atomic, Ash Koley, Beth Orton, Brandi Carlile, Butterfly Boucher, Ceci Bastida, Chairlift, Chantal Kreviazuk, Colbie Caillat, Corinne Bailey Rae, Donna Delory, Elizaveta, Emmylou Harris, Erin McCarley, Erykah Badu, Frazey Ford, the Gossip, Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, Ima, Indigo Girls, Ingrid Michaelson, Janelle Monae, Jennifer Knapp, Jill Hennessy, Jill Scott, Julia Othmer, Kate Nash Katzenjammer, Ke$ha, La Roux, Lights, Lissie, Marina & The Diamonds, Mary J. Blige, Meaghan Smith, Melissa McClelland, Metric, Miranda Lambert, Missy Higgins, Nneka, Priscilla Renea, Rosie Thomas, Sara Bareilles, Serena Ryder, Sheryl Crow, Sia, Sugarland, Susan Justice, Tara MacLean, Tegan and Sara, Toby Lightman, Vedera, Vita Chambers, The Submarines, The Weepies, Ximena Sarinana, Zee Avi and, of course, tour founder and once-more driving force Sarah McLachlan.

It is not clear which artists will perform which dates--it can't be all of them on every one, or it would be a five-day event--but we can watch www.lilithfair.com for more info in the days to come.

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For several years now, the indie-rock world has been awash in twee pop bands--genteel, mannered and all-too-polite groups strumming folkie tunes while singing in an intentionally naïve style. Midlake and the Album Leaf are two indie bands that don't rock particularly hard, and which share parts of that same lulling aesthetic, along with a dose of Radiohead-style ambient art-rock. But unlike many of their peers, these groups excel at creating all-encompassing, otherworldly and often very creepy vibes, producing some of the most sophisticated and mature music you'll hear in a scene rife with immaturity.

A quintet from Denton, TX, with virtuosic jazz chops, Midlake made quite a splash in 2006 with its second album, "(The Trials of) Van Occupanther," a swirling epic that recalled the quieter, most Pink Floyd-influenced moments from the early Flaming Lips. While touring in support of that disc, the musicians say they became fascinated with the pre-psychedelic folk sounds of groups such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention, and acoustic guitars, slower tempos, sparser arrangements and more naked and plaintive vocals dominate "The Courage of Others."

There's also a much more mysterious feel to songs such as "Winter Dies" and "In the Ground." Not since the Incredible String Band has a group so effectively evoked the mood of pagan rituals in the woods--dark, foreboding and possibly very dangerous, but strangely alluring nonetheless.

"A Chorus of Storytellers" also branches out in some unexpected directions. San Diego-based multi-instrumentalist Jimmy LaValle has long hidden behind the Album Leaf's moniker to deliver his solo studio efforts--intricate mixtures of acoustic and electronic textures that were undeniably beautiful but sometimes stilted in the way that many one-person recordings can be. Touring in support of his last album, "Into the Blue Again" (2006), LaValle fronted a truly extraordinary band, and the live shows turned into much more organic affairs. Now, on the Album Leaf's fifth release, he's recorded live for the first time with a full band.

As a result, there's a lot more air and openness in striking songs such as "Within Dreams" and "Summer Fog"--though as those titles indicate, the Album Leaf has lost none of the ethereal qualities that have attracted a devoted fan base over the last decade. Once again mixed by Birgir Jon Birgisson, producer of Sigur Ros, the group does frigid and frosty even better than those Icelandic cult heroes, and without any of the classical/operatic pretensions.

Demo2DeRo: Killing Revolutions

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Killing Revolutions make a couples of mistakes common to all too many young bands: The quintet includes only the most cryptic or clichéd biographical information on its Web sites (band members: "Dave, vocals; Mike, drums; Ryan, bass; Jonah and Miguel, guitars;" interests: "beer, women, writing music"), and it telegraphs its major influence in its moniker. (That would be political hard-rockers Rage Against the Machine, of course.)

Still, the band is worthy of some attention for the relatively unique gambit of mixing its familiar brand of rage with hints of U2's stadium-rock grandeur, as well as the fact that the six tunes on its new EP "Songs for Strangers" boast an impressive control of dynamics and some sophisticated arrangements made all the more impressive for the fact that they seemingly were recorded live.

The music is streaming online at www.killingrevolutions.com, and the band performs at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St., at 8 p.m. on Feb. 11.

Coachella announces 2010 lineup

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The Festival Lineup Speculation Season actually began a week or two ago -- Will Pavement play Pitchfork this year? Will Soundgarden play Lollapalooza? Will music fans be excited about any headliners that aren't reunited oldies acts? Who knows; I for one can wait for the answers.

In any event, Coachella, the California desert music bonanza that kicks the actual festival season off, has announced its roster and on-sale info. The names up top include Jay-Z, Muse, Gorillaz, Thom Yorke, Vampire Weekend, Them Crooked Vultures, LCD Soundsystem, Phoenix, Pavement, Faith No More and Public Image Ltd.

You hear what I'm sayin' about reunion glut, right?

The press release follows the jump.

Pravda Records: 25 years and going strong

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Since the emergence of Sub Pop Records with the Seattle grunge explosion of the '90s, many independent record companies increasingly have become known for championing a particular sound or aesthetic, where the brand is as important as the band.

Chicago's Pravda Records, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, harkens back to an attitude more prevalent in the mid-'80s--a time when dedicated music geeks started a small record company to champion sounds they loved, no matter how diverse, just because no other label was willing to help that music get heard.

"I didn't have a master plan," Pravda founder Kenn Goodman confesses. "Basically, I was in the Service and started touring with that band quite a bit and meeting a lot of other bands who were even more clueless than I was about putting out records. We kind of just became a label by default, learning how to do it by putting out our own records. Then other bands that we were coming across, like in Iowa or Texas or wherever, actually thought we were a real label, and that evolved into becoming a real label just by taking on other bands and learning the hard way how to get things done."

A Skokie native who always seems to be playing keyboards in at least three bands at once--he's currently gigging with reunited punks the Service, long-running local bar-band favorites the New Duncan Imperials, garage rockers the Goldstars, R&B legend Andre Williams and a new '70s cover band called Expo '76--Goodman is famously wry, low-key and laconic. He's never been the sort to trumpet his accomplishments, and admits he basically stumbled into the idea of celebrating Pravda's silver anniversary.

Nothing short of a force of nature onstage, the inimitable Miss Alex White will take the stage with drummer Francis White in her new duo White Mystery as part of a strong four-band lineup at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, starting at 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22. Also on the bill: Pet Lions, Post Honeymoon and Dirty Diamonds. Tickets are $6 in advance or $9 at the door; call (773) 549-4140 or visit www.metrochicago.com.

Organized by Andrew Kettering "with the intention of recapturing the intensity of united psychedelic events," the Chicago Metaphysical Circus takes over the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, starting at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, and featuring a mind-melting roster of bands including Dark Fog, Plastic Crimewave Sound, Vee Dee, Sadhu Sadhu, the Great Society Mind Destroyers and Black Wyrm Seed. Tickets are $10; call (773) 227-4433 or visit www.hideoutchicago.com for more information.

Lil Wayne, "Rebirth" (Cash Money) [1 STAR out of 4]

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While many hip-hop fans will challenge the artistic validity of the oft-repeated claim by New Orleans' Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. that he's "the best rapper alive," his commercial accomplishments are undeniable: His last album, "Tha Carter III" (2008), sold more than three million copies, garnered eight Grammy nominations and gave us one of the silliest guilty-pleasure hits of recent years with "Lollipop." But through it all, just like all the NBA and NFL stars who dream of trading places with him, the artist known as Lil Wayne has harbored a secret desire: He just wants to rock, man.

With a release date that's been pushed back half a dozen times since January 2009, Weezy's "rock album" was starting to seem more like a myth than a set of new music. But now that it's actually set to arrive in record stores on Feb. 2, it's obvious that it's actually a wildly misguided experiment that would have been better off remaining a rumor, especially since it's likely to be the rapper's last statement before reporting for a year in jail on charges of gun possession.

Some of the biggest problems are the same ones plaguing much of Lil Wayne's catalog: the annoying Auto-Tuned sing-speak of his choruses, the empty sexual boasts and clichéd street bragging of his rhymes, and the generic quality of many of his beats. The new twists are that those rhythms are delivered by a live, stomping rhythm section--though that hardly makes them more appealing--and they're decorated by a lot of hackneyed hair-metal guitar wank, as well as the occasional flourish of Queen-like glam-rock and Coldplay-style arena melodrama.

"This is that rock s---/This is hip-hop, b---," Wayne chants at one point, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction. Or maybe he's just setting up the argument he'd like the album to inspire. But "is it rock or is it rap" isn't the real question here; that would be, "How could anyone have thought this forced, joyless, plodding Frankenstein's mess was worth the trouble of releasing?"

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Like many of the wildly ambitious young romantics flooding the streets of Manhattan in the mid-'60s, Patricia Lee Smith, born in Chicago but raised in Deptford Township, N.J., and Bob Mapplethorpe, of Floral Park, Queens, both desperately sought acceptance in the glamorous world that had lured them from their working-class roots.

The two androgynous hippies and aspiring artists were biding their time as clerks for a chain of book stores during the second meeting that cemented their bond, as Smith recounts in her anticipated new memoir about their friendship, Just Kids.

"Shortly after I started working there, the boy I had briefly met in Brooklyn came into the store," she writes. "He looked quite different in his white shirt and tie, like a Catholic schoolboy. He explained that he worked at Brentano's downtown branch and had a credit slip he wanted to use. He spent a long time looking at everything, the beads, the small figurines, the turquoise rings.

"Finally he said, 'I want this.' It was the Persian necklace. 'Oh, it's my favorite too,' I answered. 'It reminds me of a scapula.' 'Are you a Catholic?' he asked me. 'No, I just like Catholic things ....' When I wrapped it and handed it to him, I said impulsively, 'Don't give it to any girl but me.' I was immediately embarrassed, but he just smiled and said, 'I won't.'"

Just Kids is full of similarly portentous vignettes, many foreshadowing the greatness to come for both, and the rest evoking the "mystical" ways in which they helped to shape each other's destinies. (When Mapplethorpe tells Smith his name is Bob, she replies, "Somehow you don't seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?") Yet despite the sometimes lyrical flow of the prose, it all gets heavy handed and downright silly after a while, and not only because we know the ending.

Forty-three years after that meeting, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith both hold well-deserved spots in the pantheons of their respective fields. Mapplethorpe, who died of complications from AIDS at age 42 in 1989, is a photographer whose style was so distinctive that his work is instantly recognizable, whether the subject is a lily, a female bodybuilder or any of the (very) controversial sexual practices that he portrayed. Smith, now 63, is the revered punk godmother whose combination of poetry and rock 'n' roll set a ferocious standard for anyone else to follow when attempting that merger.

But as their most astute biographers and fellow travelers have observed, these artists' greatest creations may have been the carefully guarded and consistently polished personas that they invented for themselves--the ones we see when contemplating, say, the famous Mapplethorpe self-portrait with devil's horns, or the shot he took of Smith for the cover of her 1975 debut album, "Horses." As the poet Rene Ricard wrote in Art in America when reviewing a joint exhibition in 1978 of Mapplethorpe's photos and Smith's drawings, "Their friendship is their masterpiece... Verlaine, Rimbaud, Smith, Mapplethorpe: We are dealing here with a network of homage and swapped destinies."

Indeed we are, though the key difference is that Verlaine and Rimbaud never mythologized their time together, while Smith has long been obsessive about controlling her public persona and erasing any hint that her success is due to anything besides divine inspiration. She has blocked or frustrated most attempts to tell her own story, and this book arrives as part of a new public relations campaign that also includes the pretty but superficial documentary, "Patti Smith: Dream of Life." It has its roots in Smith's much-publicized anger over Patricia Morrisroe's 1995 book, Mapplethorpe: A Biography. "I didn't recognize him from what Patricia had to say," Smith told The New Yorker at the time, and she set out to present her own version, which took more than a decade and two different publishers to finally realize.

Extensively researched and unflinchingly honest while far from being a hatchet job--Morrisroe was chosen by the photographer to document his life's tale-- Mapplethorpe: A Biography ultimately stands as the more illuminating and engaging book. Meanwhile, Smith has created a sort of meandering, sappy and sometimes florid fable woefully short on hard facts or revealing insights into either the nature of creativity or the particulars of the relationship. By the time she cheerfully breezes by the then sexually confused, eventually proudly homosexual Mapplethorpe "accidentally" giving her the clap, you want to scream, "Come on, now, there had to be more to it than you're saying!"

In the end, anyone familiar with either or both of these artists may conclude that Smith would have served her friend better by writing another song or poem--or that there are more revealing truths in the photos adorning these pages than there are in the prose.

JUST KIDS

By Patti Smith

Ecco, 304 pages, $27


Sad news of two losses in the music community: Danny Flesher, who co-founded the pioneering Chicago industrial dance label Wax Trax with his partner Jim Nash (who died in 1995), and Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., better known as Jay Reatard, a prolific punk recording artist and incendiary force onstage, as at the Pitchfork Music Festival here in 2008.

A press release announcing Flesher's death follows the jump.

And Lindsey's hometown paper the Commercial Appeal leads the pack in covering his passing.

And here is a link to the Sun-Times' obit for Teddy Pendergrass.

Spoon, "Transference" (Merge) [4 STARS]

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Mulling over the goal behind recording the seventh studio album from his angular art-punk band Spoon during a recent interview with the New York Times, bandleader Britt Daniel said, "I just didn't want it to sound as fretted over--and in a way that's a total lie, because it was totally fretted over." This contradiction has been at the heart of Spoon's appeal for 17 years now: The group's best songs sound effortless, almost tossed off, and you only realize that they're also brilliant and irresistible when you find yourself still humming them six months or six years later.

Some of the albums Daniel has made with drummer Jim Eno, the one other constant amid a revolving roster of bandmates during the last 17 years, have emphasized artistic experimentation (such as "Kill the Moonlight" in 2002), while others have been more straightforward melodically (including the group's last and most successful disc, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" in 2007). All of them are built on the familiar ingredients of atmospheric drones, minimal but propulsive grooves and cryptic Beat-poetic lyrics delivered in an inscrutable monotone--hallmarks of the band's most obvious influences, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground--and among its peers, only Yo La Tengo has so consistently done so much with so little for so long.

"Transference," the band's first self-produced disc, doesn't radically differ from anything it's done in the past--it's a little more laidback and hypnotic than "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga," better suited for driving on a long road trip than filling the dance floor at a house party. But from the quietly dramatic opener "Before Destruction," through the unexpected ballad "Goodnight Laura," to the fractured closing collage of "Nobody Gets Me but You," this is another welcome example of the band's casual genius.

Demo2DeRo: The Kickback

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Sibling-led bands have a special kind of intensity, as proven countless times throughout rock history, from the brothers to Davies in the Kinks to those battling Gallaghers in Oasis.

If your only exposure to the Kickback is via its recordings, including a dynamic, well-recorded, exquisitely arranged and very dramatic new disc called the "Great Self Love" EP currently streaming on its Myspace page, you might think that guitarist-vocalist Billy Yost and his drummer brother Danny have escaped the usual sibling drama. But since the group, which is completed by guitarist Tyler Zee and bassist Zachariah Verdoorn, immigrated here from South Dakota last summer, the stories have begun to spread about its explosive live performances, with the members cheerfully owning up to the occasional broken chairs and bloody knuckles.

You can sample the Kickback's aggressive but melodic and sometimes glammy roots-rock at www.myspace.com/thekickback. Or you can see if the band lives up to its feisty reputation onstage when it performs at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W Lake St., on Friday, Jan. 22.

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The personal travails that once characterized the career of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul may now be in the distant past, but that hasn't made Mary J. Blige's familiar themes of self-empowerment and transcendence through struggle any less effective on recent releases. In fact, the relatively happy and healthy artist behind "The Breakthrough" (2005) and "Growing Pains" (2007) arguably held out the hope that if she could survive and thrive, her listeners could, too, no matter the circumstances.

The problem with the singer's ninth studio album isn't that there's no more drama in Blige's life or lyrics. It's that the unadventurous, overly fussy and pandering productions don't provide the setting that her heartfelt vocals deserve.

"Never let a girl cook in your kitchen," Blige sings with a wink, but Tricky Stewart and the Dream, the sonic craftsmen behind "Kitchen," never turn the heat up the way they should, instead delivering a groove that would have been more appropriate for lightweights such as Alicia Keys or Joss Stone. Stargate, Ne-Yo and Polow Da Don fare no better, and on the single "The One," Darkchild even makes the absurd mistake of turning up the Auto-Tune.

Blige only really finds a groove worthy of her talents during the old-school slow-burn of the closing track "I Can See in Color," produced by Raphael Saadiq and appearing on the soundtrack of "Precious." Longtime fans will find other moments of pleasure on the disc, but this is the tune that will renew their faith--and leave them wondering what an album-length collaboration between Blige and Saadiq could be.

There's no better way to fend off frostbite than to pogo like a punk possessed, and a strong five-band bill at Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State, will offer plenty of reasons to do just that starting a 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16. The all-ages show is headlined by 88 Fingers Louie and also boasts the Bollweevils, Agent Orange, the Hallow and She Likes Todd. Tickets are $18 via www.ticketweb.com; call (312) 949-0121 or visit www.reggieslive.com for more info.

Hard-rocking local favorites Knife of Simpson will celebrate the release of their new album "Orenthalogy" Saturday, Jan. 16, at Quenchers Saloon, 2401 N. Western. The free show starts at 9 p.m. with I Love Rich and Hay Perro; for more information, visit www.myspace.com/knifeofsimpson.

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UPDATED THURSDAY A.M.; SEE BELOW

The controversial merger of two of the least-consumer-friendly entertainment companies in America -- the giant national concert promoter Live Nation and the monopolistic ticket broker Ticketmaster -- was first announced last February, but it could not move forward until approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

As the months dragged on and Justice maintained a stony silence on its approval process, one could be lulled into thinking that the whole thing might just go away -- one possible good outcome from a very, very bad economy.

But no such luck.The merger was approved late last year in the U.K. And today comes rumblings from Wall Street that it may soon get the O.K. on these shores as well.

The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones news wires are reporting that shares of both corporate giants "rose Wednesday on speculation that the companies' merger will be approved by the U.S. Justice Department as early as the end of the month."

The sourcing for this "speculation" seems very sketchy, however, and one activist group adamantly opposed to the merger came out railing in a press release and blaming Ticketmaster/Live Nation for spreading its own good rumors.

"This is just the latest attempt by Ticketmaster and Live Nation to convince the public and the Department of Justice to 'just trust us.' Anyone who has been ripped off by their outrageous fees and inferior service knows that Ticketmaster does not have consumers' best interests in mind," said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, a founding member of the TicketDisaster.org coalition.

"Thousands of consumers, fifty Members of Congress, and a broad and growing coalition of public interest groups and live event industry representatives oppose this merger as an attempt by one behemoth to snap up its only significant rival in the ticketing market and extend its market power into every level of the live event industry. DOJ should block this merger outright, and we have every hope that they will do so."

One can question ticketdisaster.org's motives -- one of its spokespeople is a representative of the National Association of Ticket Brokers, a lobbying group for all the businesses in competition with Ticketmaster (including scalpers) -- but as a veteran reporter who's covered both of these companies since their origins, I find it hard to disagree with many of the criticisms ticketdisaster.org makes of Live Nation and Ticketmaster on its Web site, which is well worth a visit.

Ticketdisaster.org's full statement follows the jump. Meanwhile, no comment from Ticketmaster or Live Nation.

Oh, and for the latest evidence of how consumers are consistently mistreated by both of these companies, check out my colleague Mark Guarino's account of the unbelievable ticket snafu for the upcoming local Lady Gaga shows.

UPDATE, THURSDAY A.M.:

Business Week is citing four unnamed sources and reporting that the Justice Department is seeking concessions from Live Nation and Ticketmaster before approving the merger. According to the magazine, these include "licensing ticketing software to concert promoters that compete with Live Nation... Proposals that have been explored include licensing ticketing technology to Anschutz Entertainment Group's AEG Live, the second-largest concert promoter after Live Nation... The sale of ticketing contracts and licensing software to a company controlled by Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., the largest cable operator, also has been under consideration."

This fix still is oriented toward mega-corporations rather than providing any protections for the handful of smaller regional concert promoters still remaining in the U.S. and locked in a life-or-death struggle with Live Nation and Ticketmaster -- including Chicago--based Jam Productions, whose Jerry Mickelson testified against the merger last winter on Capitol Hill.

What's that noise? CHIRP!

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The local music community endured a considerable loss in mid-2007 when Loyola University decided to take back its radio station, WLUW, from the hands of local activists and the two talented programmers who were running it, Shawn Campbell and Craig Kois.

Never one to stay down for long -- and, I should note in the interest of journalistic disclosure, formerly a volunteer on my own radio program, "Sound Opinions" -- Campbell immediately began work on a new initiative, the Chicago Independent Radio Project or CHIRP, along with Metro publicist Jenny Lizak and other music- and radio-loving locals. But finding funding and winning approvals for radio ventures is almost as difficult as getting the city to O.K. a new rock club, and it took longer than anyone expected for CHIRP to actually get going. Now it's here.

According to a statement from the group, the "non-profit, volunteer-run organization... will launch its station online at CHIRPradio.org at noon on Sunday, January 17, 2010. The station will broadcast live 21 hours a day, seven days a week from the CHIRP studios in Chicago's North Center neighborhood. [And] each three-hour on-air shift will be curated by a volunteer host, and will feature an array of independent and under-appreciated music from a variety of genres and eras, as well as conversations and information about happenings in the city's diverse arts and cultural scenes."

CHIRP will celebrate its launch with a party and fundraiser starting at 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, featuring Chicago bands the Yolks, Hollows and Rabble Rabble. (Tickets are $8.)

For more information, visit www.chicagoindieradio.org.

Dedicated Chicago music lovers aren't daunted by much, but as the temperatures drop and the snow mounts through dark and dreary January, the temptation grows to stay home with the latest envelope from Netflix rather than heading out to the clubs as usual.

"Getting people to come out when the high for the day is 10 degrees probably is the biggest hurdle," Matt Rucins says. But six years ago, the veteran Schubas talent booker conceived of a way to celebrate both the seasonal adversities and the always vibrant local music scene: the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival.

"Jeremiah Wallace, who was in Paper Airplane Pilots, used to work here, and they were doing a record release show on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend," Rucins recalls. "We were trying to come up with support [acts], and there were a lot of available bands that were really good, so I think we did the first fest as two days with six local bands. Then we gave it a shot again the next year, expanded it to three days and got some regional acts.

"The third year is when I think it went to four or five days, and we started to reach out and get other bands to come to town for it. When we went to five days, I think I started to be more diverse with different kinds of music--you'll notice that this year, there's a night of soul music, a night of dance music and a night of kind of up-and-coming indie-rock/blog-type bands."

From the beginning, the musical aesthetic of Tomorrow Never Knows has been less about the mysterious psychedelic-pop sound of that classic Beatles track from "Revolver" and more about the Ringo malapropism that gave the song its name: Think of it as "tomorrow never knows what great things may happen to these up-and-coming acts"--or, tonight, Schubas and Lincoln Hall, tomorrow, the United Center and Lollapalooza.

Speaking of Lincoln Hall, the addition of a second venue makes 2010's festival the biggest and potentially the best yet. After two decades of running one of the best-sounding, most-welcoming but smallest spotlight clubs in Chicago, sibling owners Chris and Mike Schuba announced plans late last summer for a second club at 2424 N. Lincoln, in the building that used to house the Three Penny movie theater. Lincoln Hall's opening was delayed several times, but when it finally began hosting shows in the fall, fans generally gave it good marks for expanding the familiar small-club vibe to a new room able to accommodate about 500 people.

"It was a tough time to open up a new club, and the city doesn't make it any easier," Rucins says, referring to Chicago's notoriously harsh scrutiny of music venues. "Through December, we really couldn't promote most of the shows the way we wanted to--we could only promote them four to six weeks in advance, and we usually do six to twelve weeks. Then we hit winter.

"I'm kind of reserving judgment on how it's going [at Lincoln Hall] until late February. But in terms of artist and fan response, everybody seems floored by it."

Tomorrow Never Knows will offer club goers one more reason to check out the new venue, as well as visiting the Schuba brothers' original club at Southport and Belmont. A look at the roster of acts at both locales follows the jump.

Vampire Weekend, "Contra" (XL) [1 STAR out of 4]

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While the sheer exuberance of the African rhythms so cheerfully appropriated by New York's preppy wonders Vampire Weekend eventually prompted me to warm to them a bit as a live act--the sunny sounds were hard to resist at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008, thanks to irrepressible drummer Chris Tomson--more than any distracting questions about authenticity (are privileged Columbia University grads less entitled to rip off Afro-pop sounds than Paul Simon was?), the superficialities of their concerns (polo shirts, yachting, butlers and the rest) continue to make their self-titled debut annoying to the point of being unlistenable.

Despite the heavy title of the quartet's second album--allegedly chosen to evoke "Sandinista" by the Clash, though the historical reference is to Nicaragua's right-wing death squads--the rhythms seem stale, predictable and at times ennervating (slowing to a crawl on "Diplomat's Son," a misguided dalliance with dub reggae); the hooks are much skimpier and less memorable, and bandleader and primary songwriter Ezra Koenig has even less insight to offer while bragging of his groovy globetrotting: His idea of insight into our polyglot culture is to brag of drinking horchata, a milky Mexican concoction made from rice, while wearing a balaclava, a Ukrainian ski mask.

Who can't relate to that? This reviewer, for one: To these ears, Vampire Weekend has made an even more airy, trifling and unfulfilling disc than its predecessor. And because it's the second time around, there are even fewer reasons to care.

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Introduced to the pop marketplace early in the last decade with all the strategic subtlety of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Alicia Keys seemed to be grasping for reasons to justify mentor Clive Davis' hype on her first two albums, "Songs in a Minor" (2001) and "The Diary of Alicia Keys" (2003). With her last disc, she stopped trying so hard and simply turned herself over to the pop machine. As a result, though it was still extremely silly at times, "As I Am" (2007) stands as her most pleasurable statement.

Alas, the fourth time around, Keys is vying to be heavier than ever. She throws down the gauntlet and defines "The Element of Freedom" in a ponderous introduction: "And the day came/When the risk it took/To remain tightly closed in a bud/Was more painful than the risk it took to bloom." So what does this flowering bouquet give us? Nothing but empty cliches, same as in the past. (Sample lyric: "Through the shake of an earthquake, I will never fall/That's how strong my love is.")

You might contend that no one expects wit and wisdom from Keys. Fair enough, but fans have come to appreciate the sultry slow-burn of her mix of old-school R&B, polished neo-soul and the slightest hint of hip-hop edge. But those sounds are blunted to the point of boredom here by the plodding rhythms and odd flourishes of hollow stadium-rock bombast: It's not hard to imagine Bon Jovi putting its stamp on many of these tunes, but at least their guitar solos would prompt concertgoers to wave their lighters in the air.

In the end, the strongest moment is "Empire State of Mind Part 2," a chilled-out encore of "Empire State of Mind," her duet with Jay-Z on "The Blueprint 3." And as strong as this tune is, it sounded better the first time around.

Demo2DeRo: The Ugly

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A combination of Misfits-style horror-punk, Slayer-intense thrash-metal and a bit of Rev. Horton Heat psychobilly sounds like an unholy mixture designed to appeal to only the most twisted and self-punishing of palates--the musical equivalent of Elvis' favorite peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich. But the suburban Chicago trio the Ugly proves to be a delicious and addictive treat.

The group has been kicking around in various guises since early in the new millennium--it's already released one D.I.Y. album and EP, with another long-player in the works--but it seems to have really developed its identity a few years ago when drummer-vocalist the Void and guitarist Gideon linked up with electric standup bassist Robo, whose rhythmic bottom is even more massive than his daunting physical presence.

The Ugly says it's looking for a drummer to free the Void up to take center stage, but if you ask me, it's perfect just as it is: Add one more ingredient to that peanut butter, banana and bacon trinity, and you might be courting disaster. Witness the tunes streaming on the band's MySpace page, http://www.myspace.com/theuglyfugitives, or better yet, catch the trio live at Exit, 1315 W. North Ave., on Feb. 7.

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One of the hottest reasons I've heard this month to venture out into the sub-zero chill is the tribute by Chicago's hardest-rocking burlesque troupe, Hot & Heavy, to that immortal Pink Floyd epic, "The Wall."

According to visionary dancer Viva La Muerte, the show will "take burlesque to a new frontier as the group performs the album in its entirety during a spectacular two-act show" at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave, starting at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 8 and 9, and again on Jan. 15 and 16.

Among the participants: Red Hot Annie, Paris Green, Holly Wouldn't, Ms Bea Haven, Mae the Belly Dancer, Miss Vine, Maria the Purple Goddess, Honey Le'Fleur, Sultry Susan, Ellie Noise, the Dolls of Doom, Stage Door Johnnies -- and of course Ms. La Muerte and Pink Floyd.

Tickets are $15 in advance through www.TicketWeb.com or $20 at the door; visit www.vivalamuerte.us or myspace.com/hotandheavyburlesque for more information.

Thomas Conner

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

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