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April 2011 Archives

scatteredtreescd.jpgScattered Trees, "Sympathy" [2 and a half stars] -- The second album Nathan Eiseland wrote and recorded was his first with the Minneapolis-Chicago band Scattered Trees, and it was called "Song for My Grandfather." His latest is called "Sympathy," but it could easily be titled "Songs for My Father." The band was literally scattering in 2009 when Eiseland's father died, and he dove back into writing new songs to work through the experience. Last year, he summoned the band back together, and they recorded this eight-song meditation on loss and love. This album is one long "Sympathy" card, for sure -- a collection of thoughtful lyrics that suffer from the music's hyper-restraint and lack of color. The songs aren't downers in themselves -- "It's 2 a.m. and my words are wearing thin on you," Eiseland sings in the Stars-y "A Conversation," but though his lines are often heavy they never really wear -- but the production (or lack thereof) and consistently slow, dragging tempos make them mope instead of mosey.

In concert: See if the music comes alive on stage when Scattered Trees plays its CD release party at 10 p.m. Saturday at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport. Chaperone and the Loneliest Monk open. Tickets: $10.

In other Chicago(ish) music news ...

The spring rush is peaking, and there's a ton of music out next week ...

Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" (Sub Pop) (3 and a half stars) -- As appealing to fans of folk music of the '70s as to regular visitors of Renaissance fairs, the music of Fleet Foxes comes on like wilderness hymns. That's not just because of the exquisite harmonies, which are heavily reverbed here as if the album was recorded in a church. On this album moreso than the band's platinum-selling 2008 debut, chief singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold speaks more plainly, and occasionally plaintively, about his hopes, yearnings, needs. In the hard-strumming, hard-thinking title track, he wrestles with whether he should pray for salvation. While the debut lyrically and musically looked to the "Blue Ridge Mountains," the signposts on the follow-up are more worldly -- "Montezuma," "Bedouin Dress," "The Cascades," allusions to Yeats, a greater diversity (and proficiency) of instruments. Whereas they introduced themselves sounding like a reupholstered Fairport Convention, now Fleet Foxes begin to sound like their own animal.

CD review: Beastie Boys, 'Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2'

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(Capitol) 3 stars

beastiehotsauce.jpgLordy, it's been nearly 13 years since "Hello Nasty," and a quarter-century since "Licensed to Ill." My IRA just spit up a little. We haven't even heard from the Beastie Boys in seven years -- unless you count that instrumental album in 2007 -- and now they're back, finally, hollering with typical cheek, "Oh, my God, just look at me / Grandpa been rapping since '83!"

Adam "MCA" Yauch, Michael "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horowitz had planned "Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1" for 2009. After releasing one single, "Too Many Rappers" with Nas, the project was derailed by Yauch's cancer diagnosis. With Yauch now recovered, the hip-hop trio reshuffled the tracks, subtracted one, and now presents the set as "Part 2," confounding discographers for years to come.

The Beasties obviously have wasted no energy catching up with current hip-hop trends, instead carefully recapping the styles and sounds that have become their signatures ...

Smashing Pumpkins reissues set, new music coming

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Smashing Pumpkins fans will soon have the opportunity to buy their favorite records all over again. After a lengthy legal negotiation, the alt-classic band's catalog will get the deluxe reissue treatment, starting this fall with 1991's "Gish," 1993's landmark "Siamese Dream" and the following year's "Pisces Iscariot" comp. The old titles keep coming through 2013.

Meanwhile, Billy Corgan says the Pumpkins are returning to the studio in May to record "Oceania," the next portion of the band's work-in-progress song cycle called "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope." Those 10 new songs are due online in September, though a new song called "Owata" is due next week.

Details in Corgan's matter-of-fact announcement video ...

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Things haven't changed much for the Kuti family, or for Nigeria.

Fela Kuti, the wildman trumpeter who contributed much to Afrobeat music, used his songs to rail against corruption and the military rule by the Nigerian government throughout the '70s and '80s. In 1977, the government retaliated against Kuti's lyrical attacks by burning down the Kalakuta compound, which contained his recording studio, the Shrine nightclub and residences for his large family. Despite that and several arrests, Kuti continued defying the government through his music and by forming his own political party. He died in 1997 of AIDS-related complications.

The Shrine, however, lives on -- in reality and in art. Fela's survivors built the New Africa Shrine in a different part of Lagos, the country's former capital. But it faces similar governmental harassment, says Fela's son, Femi Kuti, who carries on his father's musical and political legacy (albeit with a more diplomatic tone).

"They harass the patrons, they look for reasons to shut it down," Femi Kuti said during our recent phone interview from his home in Lagos. "It's nothing like what my father experienced, but the sentiments are the same. ... This new democratic government is just the same rulers who've taken off their military uniforms." (Just last week, Nigerian civilian president Goodluck Jonathan called out troops to quell protests and rioting after his re-election, which the opposition candidate insists was rigged.)

The original Shrine also has been recreated onstage. A musical, "Fela!," features the nightclub as its chief setting and attempts to tell the story of Fela's personal and political struggles while showcasing his inventive jazz- and funk-based music. The musical, produced by rapper Jay-Z and actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, opened on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tony Awards.

Femi Kuti, 48, spoke with us on the eve of a new tour with his band, the Positive Force, supporting a new album, "Africa for Africa."

A Lull streaming live concert tonight

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The Blue Nile once sang about being caught up in a "big rhythm," which is what happens when Chicago's multi-drummer band A Lull plays a show. The thundering band's new album, "Confetti," is pretty good, and their SXSW showcase made a whole lot of a small space.

They'll be streaming a live concert online here at 8:30 tonight from Chicago's Paragon Studios.

A Lull - Weapons For War by MushRecords

Ravinia 2011 tickets go on sale early Wednesday

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Reminder: Ravinia tickets go on sale at 5 a.m. Wednesday exclusively through Ravinia's website. (Phone sales begin May 22 at 847-266-5100.)

The full list of non-classical, pop shows is here.

Some shows might fill up quickly, such as Robert Plant & His Band of Joy (June 16), Maroon 5 (June 30-July1), Jennifer Hudson (July 16), Rufus Wainwright (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Aug. 14) and the return of Chicago (Aug. 27-28).

poly042611.jpgPoly Styrene was working the promotion for her latest album from her hospice bed, conducting phone interviews and tweeting her personal and professional status to her fans and followers. "It's been a bit of a battle fighting this cancer but hey ho I'm still alive," she posted on Twitter. Later, "Hoping & praying I can fight this cancer. Thank u all 4 ur positive vibes, I'm overwhelmed, ur keeping me in the land of living. Luv Poly X."

But Styrene lost her battle with advance breast cancer, dying Monday at age 53.

Styrene made her significant impact on music as leader of the British punk band X-Ray Spex. It was a brief moment -- just one album, 1978's "Germ Free Adolescents" -- but what a moment. Her atonal rants against consumerism and conformity were early paving stones on the path to the riot grrrls of the 1990s, the tough flamboyance of singers such as Beth Ditto (Gossip) and Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), even Lady Gaga's theatrical empathy for the alienated.

Phoebe Snow was one of Those Voices. Soulful, jazzy, bluesy, tender, sassy -- she could do it all, without allowing her sheer vocal prowess to diminish the emotional power of a song. The fact that fans couldn't get enough of her wasn't due to an irrational hunger. Snow simply didn't record very often -- after her initial flurry of activity in the mid-'70s, she made only four new studio albums in the last 30 years -- and now her unique voice has been silenced.

Snow died this morning in Edison, N.J., from complications of a brain hemorrhage she suffered in January 2010. She was 58.

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This summer will be Lollapalooza's seventh year in Chicago as a destination festival, yet the three-day music event is celebrating a 20th anniversary.

There haven't been 20 Lollapaloozas -- the tours took a hiatus from 1997 to 2003, and 2004's was canceled due to low ticket sales before the event was reborn on Chicago's lakefront the following year. But the website and marketing for the concert package include a "time capsule" with photos and recollections from Lollas past, back to its 1991 founding by Jane's Addiction leader Perry Farrell as a traveling, multistage festival.

The lineup for Lollapalooza 2011, announced Monday, looks back, too -- seeming to make up for those inactive years at the turn of the century. The all-male headliners for the festival, Aug. 5-7 in Grant Park, hark back to that era.

Eminem broke in 1999 with his acclaimed "Slim Shady LP." Coldplay's first EPs were out that year, ahead of its smash 2000 debut. Muse, My Morning Jacket and A Perfect Circle each debuted in 1999, while the Foo Fighters were in the middle of their ascendancy, having just lost guitarist Pat Smear (he's back for the new album and tour).

KMFDM, "WTF?!" (2 stars) -- Fresh off the success of last weekend's Wax Trax! Retrospectacle concerts, at which some members of KMFDM performed some of the band's "hits," the brand continues in the hands of Sascha Konietzko -- and the dark dance music sounds ... largely the same. The industrial crunch and distorted beats thump on, and Konietzko's demonic croak inform us (nice timing) that now there are "Rebels in Kontrol."

Amid the status quo, there's "Take It Like a Man" -- a wonderfully aberrant, four-minute disco-pop song lead by KMFDM's underutilized singer Lucia Cifarelli (there's a solo career ripe for a reboot). It's as if someone accidentally dropped a Berlin song in the middle of the playlist when they burned this otherwise scowl-by-numbers CD, and it's worth a single download. Hear it at 4:05 in this album preview stream ...

Arcade Fire opens three-night stand with real fire

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They were always this exuberant, even before the Grammy win.

"We're going to go play another song, because we like music!" Arcade Fire leader Win Butler said that February night, trophy in hand, thrilled that he and his Canadian indie-rock band had just upset the Grammys (and made Barbra Streisand stutter) by winning album of the year for their third disc, "The Suburbs." Butler was like a boy being shown off at his parents' stuffy dinner party -- whatever, can I get back to my light-saber now? Arcade Fire suddenly had the world's attention, not to mention every music mogul in the Grammys crowd, but these jumpy kids-at-heart just wanted to play one more song.

That same innocent jubilance powers the band on its current victory lap tour. Fresh from a glowing performance last weekend at the Coachella festival in California, the eight-piece band returned to Chicago on Friday night for the first of three sold-out concerts at the UIC Pavilion (besting their three sold-out nights in 2007 at the much smaller Chicago Theatre). A lot has happened since Arcade Fire headlined Lollapalooza last August (where the National also preceded them), but little has changed on stage, save maybe the number of roadies and guitar techs. They're still a big, bombastic blast.

(New West) 1 and a halfstars

steveearle042211.jpgWho knew Steve Earle would turn out to be such a renaissance man? His 14th album is out next week, but on Sunday night he returns to TV as an actor in the HBO series "Treme" and on May 12 he publishes his first novel, which utilizes the same Hank Williams song title as the album. Amid these other pursuits, Earle's music is starting to look like just another piece of the marketing plan.

"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" certainly sounds like a companion piece, as if we just had the missing piece -- a text, a visual, a play -- the experience would be complete.

mathis0424.JPGJohnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music -- and he has, read on -- but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?

The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template -- soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid -- through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."

But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.

"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."

Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?

"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."

Kanye West's high school student charity closes

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The New York Times reported this week that the Kanye West Foundation has closed.

The charity's director, Joseph Collins, sent an email last month to board members saying, "I am reaching out to let you know that the Kanye West Foundation has officially closed it doors after a successful 4+ years of programming and events. It has been an incredible experience working with Kanye and the board to realize his mother's vision and I am honored to have been given the opportunity to lead the Foundation."

The foundation -- which raised money for programs "to help combat the severe dropout problem in schools" -- was created by the Chicago rapper's late mother, Donda West, a local educator who died in 2007.

Kanye had made a habit of returning to Chicago each summer to perform benefit concerts for the foundation. Last June he performed for the organization's third annual concert at the Chicago Theatre on his 33rd birthday with fellow Chicago rappers Common and Lupe Fiasco. The charity was based in West Hollywood, Calif.

Gerard Smith, bassist for the acclaimed band TV on the Radio, died on Wednesday at age 34 after a battle with lung cancer, according to an announcement on the band's website.

"We are very sad to announce the death of our beloved friend and bandmate, Gerard Smith, following a courageous fight against lung cancer," the statement reads. "Gerard passed away the morning of April 20th, 2011. We will miss him terribly."

As a result, the band has canceled five concerts -- including the scheduled show Friday night at Chicago's Metro. The band's statement says "canceled," but an announcement from the Metro calls it "postponed," adding: "Fans have the option to hold onto their tickets for a possible rescheduled show, or return to point of purchase for a refund."

TV on the Radio had just released the album "Nine Types of Light" to many great reviews, though Smith was not on the current tour to support it. The band only revealed that Smith was undergoing treatment for cancer about one month ago.

Ezra Furman & the Harpoons wield a 'Mysterious Power'

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Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music -- I recommend it highly, it's damn good -- but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.

"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad -- I dream of greatness, you know -- I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."

whitemystery041811.jpgWhite Mystery, "Blood & Venom" (3 stars) -- Now that the White Stripes are no more, can we stop bringing them up when discussing Chicago's siblings-named-White duo, White Mystery? Jack White would probably dig this carrot-topped couple, but Alex White and her younger brother Francis White grind out garage rock without being informed as much by Jack's blues. And thank goodness. On "Blood & Venom," their second album, out Tuesday, White Mystery stomps and lurches and screams bloody murder like the scummiest of Detroit punk bands, continuing and occasionally besting the cacophony of their debut.

Within tight two- and three-minute songs, Alex sings -- no, she hollers, wails, doing her best foreboding Grace Slick -- and riffs while Francis bashes the bejesus out of his drums. They sound best here when they're completely bleak -- "Smoke" bristles with real danger, like a scene in a biker flick ("I'm going down the highway / looking for some trouble / I know I'm gonna find it"), and the layered vocals of "Dead Inside" -- or utterly giddy and ready to throw down. The second half features "Birthday" (finally, a punk birthday anthem!), followed by "Party," and by "1985" Alex is celebrating her own birthday -- "April 30, 1985, was the day I set the world on fire!" The album actually has a sluggish start, with several midtempo songs that drag a bit. But eventually the bombs explode and the fuzz and reverb and overmodulated whoops turn "Blood & Venom" into a potent cocktail.

In concert: White Mystery celebrates the release of "Blood & Venom" with two shows on Wednesday at Pancho's, 2200 N. California. At 6 p.m. it's all-ages with Close Hits and Loose Dudes opening ($7 here); at 10:30 p.m. it's 21+ with Slushy and Rabble Rabble opening ($7 here)

Gorillaz' "The Fall" (2 and a half stars) album sees a physical release this week -- on 180-gram vinyl for Record Store Day, then as a CD on Tuesday. "The Fall" was streaming and offered as a download to the fan club in December. Recorded on an iPad in hotel rooms and backstage while the collective was touring North America last autumn, the 15 tracks are low-key, chilled-out, much more roomy and less claustrophobic than "Plastic Beach" (especially "Shytown" -- most tracks have geographic titles -- which sounds like Lake Michigan waves lapping the Oak Street Beach as Damon Albarn coos some falsetto ramblings). It loses itself in its own drone occasionally -- it probably sounds great in a rolling bus -- but it might be the group's most cohesive set yet.

CD review: 'Glee: The Music presents the Warblers'

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(Sony) 2 stars

Thank heaven Kurt finally broached the subject with Blaine, that he was hogging the spotlight in the Dalton Academy Warblers -- the preppy, preposterous rivals of the New Directions show choir on Fox's "Glee" TV series. Too late, though, now there's an entire album of him doing just that: "Glee: The Music presents the Warblers," out Tuesday.

Darren Criss, who plays smug charm-bot Blaine, is the least convincing teenager on TV. But the boy can punch a melody, and the arrangements and backup voices of the Beelzebubs, Tufts University's male vocal group, help make all-male a cappella music somehow relevant enough for contemporary pop radio. On a few occasions they even top it -- the Warblers' performances of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and Train's "Hey Soul Sister" greatly outshine the originals.

Lady Gaga's "Judas," the second single from her upcoming "Born This Way" album, due May 23, was scheduled for release on Tuesday. But the hotly anticipated new track surfaced today. Listen here ...

The Pitchfork Music Festival has completed its lineup for the annual three-day concert scheduled July 15-17 in Chicago's Union Park.

Thurston Moore, Battles, tUnE-yArDs, Gatekeeper and EMA have been added to the Friday bill; DJ Shadow, Zola Jesus, Twin Shadow, Toro Y Moi, Cold Cave, Julianna Barwick, Wild Nothing and OFF! round out Saturday; and Superchunk and Darkstar will appear Sunday.

That means the whole lineup now looks like this ...

Diddy Dirty Money brings clubby vibe to tour

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Diddy leads Dirty Money in concert Thursday night at Chicago's House of Blues. (Oscar Lopez/For the Sun-Times)


Whatever happened to the lone rap star? Kanye recently put on an all-night concert showcasing a dozen of his G.O.O.D. Music progeny. Lil Wayne was just in town, chiefly as the drum major in a parade of Young Money artists and friends. Now here's Diddy on the road, not as a star but as the figurehead of a trio, Diddy Dirty Money, flanked by two female singers. Apparently you can't just be a rapper anymore, you have to be a patriarch.

For P-Puffy-Puff Daddy Diddy, this is a good development. A fine businessman but a remarkably substandard rapper (and his Hammer-like dance moves, yeesh), Diddy himself admits he plays better on a team, as he showed Thursday night during Dirty Money's concert at Chicago's House of Blues, only the second performance of their debut tour. Pulling songs from the trio's atmospheric album, "Last Train to Paris," Diddy led the group -- backed by three musicians and three backup singers -- through a 90-minute show that sparkled when the trio seized its few opportunities to shine unencumbered by lights, videos, gimmicks and old hits.

Six Chicago events on Record Store Day (Saturday)

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Record Store Day isn't just another day in the shops -- most feature a schedule of in-store performances and other activities to juice the holiday. Here are five must-see events on Saturday in Chicago ...

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You can look at the numbers many different ways. In 2010, overall album sales were down 13 percent, according to a January report from Nielsen SoundScan -- but sales of vinyl records were up 14 percent. That's the best sales record for the classic LP since 1991.

Then again, vinyl counts for less than one percent of that overall annual figure. Plus, vinyl's increase was 89 percent in 2008, and 33 percent in 2009 -- so the resurgence is losing steam.

The cresting wave, though, is enough to keep the lights on and the turntables spinning at Chicago record shops, many of which now focus sales on vinyl records rather than CDs -- and most of which are hosting special sales and events this Saturday on the occasion of an annual hipster holiday, Record Store Day.

Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").

In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality -- and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.

"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" -- Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" -- "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.

His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.

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Mike Zelenko (left) and Ted Ansani reboot Material Issue for a show celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band's "International Pop Overthrow" album ... at the International Pop Overthrow festival. (Keith Hale/Sun-Times)


It's a true power-pop harmonic convergence -- the 10th annual International Pop Overthrow festival in Chicago during the next 10 days will culminate in a rematerialization of Material Issue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that acclaimed trio's landmark debut, "International Pop Overthrow," from which the festival took its name.

David Bash started this festival more than a decade ago in Los Angeles. Naming it after Chicago's power-pop legends was a no-brainer.

"I was wanting to put together a festival that united the worldwide pop scene under one umbrella -- all those bands that make melodic songs with strong hooks, traditional verse-chorus structure, the stuff we grew up on and that lives on," Bash told the Sun-Times. "I was on the phone, trying to describe to a friend what I wanted to do, and I said the words 'international pop scene.' I started mouthing them over and over, and it hit me. I have to call it International Pop Overthrow. [Material Issue singer-guitarist] Jim Ellison had taken his own life just about a year earlier and, you know, I wanted to rally a cause -- to actually take over what was on radio at the time, which was a lot of amelodic music, Korn and Limp Bizkit."

"Fix: The Ministry Movie" reaches a climax around some grainy footage of the band, Chicago industrial-rock pioneers Ministry, cutting short the song "So What" and evacuating the stage. The audience is fleeing, too; some yahoo in the crowd set off a canister of what the band thinks is tear gas. Backstage -- and this movie is chiefly set backstage, all over the world -- singer Al Jourgensen is crouched in a corridor, panicking. "This is f---ed up!" he says. "This is the last tour I'm doing, ever. I'm not gonna risk my f---in' ass for this."

The incident is presented as further evidence of Jourgensen's descent into paranoia, drug-fueled or otherwise. The documentary's next scene shows a burly man exhibiting two bullet-proof vests, advising Jourgensen which one would wear well onstage, lest the violence of some of the band's fans -- fueled in part by the music itself -- become truly extreme.

What "Fix" doesn't show, however -- and I know, because I was at this particular concert, May 5, 1996, at the Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla. -- is that the show went on. Ministry came back out and barreled through such screechy, scorching milestones as "Scarecrow," "N.W.O." and "Thieves." Whatever Jourgensen's hang-ups, he always bounced back.

"Fix" opens the third annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival this week with its world premiere, ahead of this weekend's Wax Trax! Retrospectacle concerts at Metro, celebrating the label that brought Ministry and other like-minded bands to prominence.

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Front 242 during a 1998 performance at Chicago's Metro. (Sun-Times file)


"You know, when 'Cold Life' sold 3,000 copies, we said, 'We're Warner Bros. We're there!'" Jim Nash said in 1991 of Chicago band Ministry's debut single 10 years earlier. "That was when two people ran Wax Trax! out of the back of a record store."

That record store was located at 2449 N. Lincoln (see the site on the new Chicago Rocks tour), and the two people running it throughout the '80s -- and the pioneering record label of the same name -- were Nash and his partner, in business and in life, Dannie Flesher. The label didn't quite reach a Warner Bros.-size impact, but its dance-rock sound and eventual influence are recognizable, quantifiable and quite possibly more important to its fans by virtue of it remaining more of a cult phenomenon. This weekend, anyway, that's worthy of celebration.

For three nights at Metro, denizens of the ever-evolving Wax Trax! bands will coalesce for special performances, including the "electronic body music" of Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, members of the Revolting Cocks (including Luc Van Acker, Paul Barker and Chris Connelly), members of KMFDM (including En Esch and Mona Mur), Rights of the Accused and more.

CD review: A Lull, 'Confetti'

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(Mush) 3 stars

alullconfetti.jpg"There's a quiet sound building all around," Nigel Evan Dennis sings in "Sideman" from A Lull's new full-length, before swapping adjectives, adding, "There's a disgusting sound building all around." This Chicago band makes music that couldn't justly be described as either quiet or disgusting. When I saw them perform last month at SXSW, four of its five members were beating drums (some full-time, some part-time). So you'd expect "Confetti," out today, to be a thunderous yawp, and it is -- but it's also remarkably light, the layers and layers (and layers) of sounds, mostly rhythms, flitting and fluttering like confetti itself. "Weapons for War" opens the album with synthesized traffic noise and skittering drumsticks; the music is bright and uplifting, even while the quizzical, esoteric lyrics suggest danger: "I went home with my very best friend / with a gun, with a blade, with a name ..." Some of the sounds are sometimes so digitally processed they lose shape and certainly warmth, and the ambition of the sound-stacking can get wearying. But the kinetic sound sculptures always resolve themselves into pretty accessible pop songs, without resolving the tension. An auspicious debut.

In concert: A Lull plays a CD release party at 10 p.m. April 22 at Schubas.

Smith Westerns spotlighted in two film projects

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Spend some Saturday time hanging with the Smith Westerns in the studio toward the end of recording their sophomore album "Dye It Blonde" -- in this short promo film (about 10 minutes) called "Die With Your Chin Up," from New York director Ray Concepcion ...

Smith Westerns: Die With Your Chin Up from stereogum on Vimeo.

In concert: The Smith Westerns are back home May 11 at Lincoln Hall.

The Chicago rock band is popular on that side of the lens lately. The Smith Westerns also appear in a new documentary about the latest generation of garage rockers, "New Garage Explosion!!: In Love With the Times" ...

CD reviews: New Feelies, Bob Geldof, Colin Hay, more

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feeliesherebefore.jpgThe Feelies, "Here Before" (Bar None) 3 and a half stars -- Like the return of Steely Dan, the Feelies reassembled as if no time had passed at all. "Here Before," however, is this acclaimed New Jersey quintet's first album in 20 years. Like the players' catalog throughout the '80s (in the Feelies and half a dozen offshoots), the music here pays little attention to current trends or contemporary sounds. They're aware of the passing of time -- the album opens with singer-guitarist Glenn Mercer singing, "Is it too late to do it again, or should we wait another 10?" -- and the only indication that they're older is a less-frenetic, easygoing amble in the trademark 12-string strumming and insistent, soft rhythms. It's instantly recognizable and amazingly fresh.

Feelies songs used to begin way in the distance, fading in over the course of two minutes; here, a jangly song like "Should Be Gone" starts up front and ends with a long walk into the distance -- the drums, bass and guitar actually playing softer and softer instead of an engineer turning down the knob. "Time Is Right" recalls the ferocity of the band's first record, the splash-making "Crazy Rhythms" (1980), with a bit more anxiety in the guitars of Mercer and fellow singer-guitarist Bill Million. But mostly "Here Before" is perfectly pleasant trip well worth the wait.

In other news, and what I'm still listening to ...

(Red Parlor) 4 stars

ezramysterious.jpgEzra Furman & the Harpoons have been knocking around this area for years, Furman being the young but oft-cited "unappreciated genius." The first couple of records, "Banging Down the Doors" (2007) and "Inside the Human Body" (2008), bristled with energy and potential. They drew a lot of Violent Femmes, Neil Young and Bob Dylan comparisons and were clear proof of a burgeoning, visceral talent, even if they weren't convincing of the "genius" tag quite yet. With the third outing the comparisons will keep coming (he's a snotty Roky Erickson, an amphetamine-jacked Chris Kowanko, a not-so-childlike Daniel Johnston), but the argument that Furman is a brilliant individual with his own searing voice will be much easier to make. "Mysterious Power" is revelatory -- a joyous racket, a splintered confessional, an anxious thrill ride with the top down next to a fidgety poet who's crazy in love.

As expected, the second Dave Matthews Caravan festival will be in Chicago this summer, July 8-10 at Lakeside, a former industrial site on the South Side that's now a dormant residential development near 85th Street and the lakefront.

So much for Matthews and his band taking the year off. They previously announced a Caravan three-day fest for June 24-26 in Atlantic City, N.J. August and September dates are expected in two other cities to come.

CD review: Foo Fighters, 'Wasting Light'

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(RCA) 3<br />
and a half stars

foowasting.jpgAmid the mountain of commentary sure to come about how this new album from Dave Grohl & Friends absolutely rocks harder than anything they've done before, which seems to be said about each Foo Fighters album, let me point out the yin that makes that yang into a whole being.

Yes, "Wasting Light" is a frequently thunderous guitar assault, somehow massive and monstrous without ever breaking the pop-song mold. The screaming is still tuneful, and the torrential riffs serve simple but solid melodies. But what makes the grrrrrr so good this time around is what plays against it -- the remarkably soft, restrained harmonies on the chorus of the otherwise brutal "Bridge Burning," the drone and countermelodies of "These Days" (not a Jackson Browne cover, but you know, Browne might actually like this), the chorus of "Back and Forth" that props up a woozy dissonance with tambourine-shaking, power-pop catchiness.

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Robert Plant on stage last summer at Taste of Chicago. (Sun-Times file)


The Led Zeppelin reunion never toured, with or without singer Robert Plant, and I for one say thank the golden gods.

After the legendary band's 2007 performance at London's O2 arena -- nearly complete with Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham subbing for his late father, John Bonham -- fans around the world braced their credit cards for a whole lotta love. But the eagerly anticipated tour never materialized.

Reasons for the fizzle were foggy. The band wanted to tour, and the offer was up to $200 million to hit the road -- but Plant was the holdout. As he waved away the idea, the others considered hiring another singer and going out without him. That idea "got as close as you can possibly get," Bonham said. In the end, nothing happened. "It would have been nice to have played more concerts," Page told the Times of London last year. "But it doesn't look like it."

After reviving several old brands recently -- "Unplugged" returned last year, and "120 Minutes" is back as a monthly show (with a weekly online counterpart, "120 Seconds") -- MTV is launching a new show, the O Music Awards, showcasing online and digital music.

No, Chicago, O does not mean Oprah.

"We wanted the O to be open," Shannon Connolly, MTV's VP of digital music strategy, told the Sun-Times. "We can fill it in with things -- ongoing, online, OMG, whatever it is. In the spirit of this being very beta, it's open. We'll see what it becomes."

The Dave Matthews Band has previously announced its own summer concert festival, the Dave Matthews Caravan, June 24-26 in Atlantic City, N.J., but its website says there will be four festivals in total, leaving July, August and September dates tantalizingly blank. On Thursday, confirming swirling rumors, Chicago's biggest concert promoters -- Jam Productions and Live Nation/Ticketmaster -- will hold a press conference adding dates (likely July) for the three-day festival on Chicago's South Side.

Steering clear of the city's major venues and parks, the Caravan will set up shop at the Lakeside development, a former steel facility turned planned community located near the shoreline at 85th Street. (And I just saw Kanye West perform in a decommissioned power plant. Here's to recycling the industrial age into concert venues!)

Speakers at Thursday's announcement at the Lakeside Marketing Center, 8555 S. Green Bay Ave., include 7th Ward Alderman Sandi Jackson and 10th Ward Alderman John Pope, so the city must be on board.

The Atlantic City event features the DMB headlining, plus David Gray, Ray Lamontange, the Flaming Lips, O.A.R. and dozens others. Not sure yet how the bills in other cities will be similar or different.

popesjosh040311.jpgThe Smoking Popes' new album, "This Is Only a Test," looks at life from the perspective rock 'n' roll sees most clearly -- that of a teenager. The songs are quick, hard-riffing examinations of molehill moments that loom like mountains. Singer-songwriter Josh Caterer bemoans missing a concert because "I've Got Mono." He whines about not wanting to go to "College," about wanting only to join a "Punk Band." As he does best, he boils down romantic angst into heartbreaking little epiphanies, asking in "Excuse Me, Coach," "How can I run a mile with a broken heart? ... How can I do another pushup now when everything I care about just said goodbye?"

The Chicago band's latest homecoming set, Sunday night at the Double Door after a tour of recently ignored fan bases on the West Coast, was a reminder that this talent of Caterer's is not new.

Robbie Robertson, "How to Become Clairvoyant" (2 and a half stars) -- Robertson's first album in more than a decade makes good on the long absence with considerable heft added to the usual arms-length approach and haunted boogie. High-profile guests (Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Trent Reznor, more) include Tom Morello on "Axman," a sly, name-checking tune about dudes "who play a mean guitar."

"House" of blues -- British actor-comedian Hugh Laurie has recorded an album of traditional American blues, "Let Them Talk." Watch this impressive performance for the Guardian live from New Orleans.

Power pop alerts --


  1. A 20th-anniversary reissue of the debut Material Issue album, "International Pop Overthrow," is released this Tuesday. Plus, the Chicago band's surviving members will regroup to perform the album in its entirety at the festival that bears the album's name in a few weeks; that show, Material Reissue (featuring Ted Ansani, Mike Zelenko and Phil Angotti), is April 23 at the Abbey. See the full Chicago IPO schedule.

  2. The Smithereens, "2011" (3 stars) -- A 12-year wait for new songs is rewarded with less growth but precise targeting from this "Revolver"-loving band. Reunited with producer Don Dixon, the Smithereens sound like they haven't aged a day. The guitars bristle, the rhythms stomp, frequent Chicago visitor Pat DiNizio still stacks the downcast pop songs with conviction and heart.

CD review: The Raveonettes, 'Raven in the Grave'

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raveonettes040111.jpgThe surprising endurance and influence of "Psychocandy" deserves a dissertation or a book. At last month's SXSW music showcase, there was a little Jesus and lot of Mary Chain sulking around. You heard a little of Reid-brothers influence in buzz band Yuck, more in young bands like Ringo Deathstarr and the Joy Formidable (both once removed from the impact, sounding more like the Primitives).

For nearly a decade, Danish duo the Raveonettes have been held against that milestone, from which they draw so much of their sound -- the palpitating drums, the distorted, tinny guitars -- but on "Raven in the Grave" (2 and a half stars), their fifth album out Tuesday, they finally break free. Waves of drone keep the usual pop choruses up against the wall, while plaintive guitars mull melancholy lines where drums once used to pound and the effervescent cheer that bubbled through previous records is flattened out. None of this is a complaint, except when the listless air goes too far ("Summer Moon" is fatigued and fatiguing, as they sing, "This perfect thing is dying"). "Let Me On Out" will take root with new MGMT fans ("Congratulations," not "Oracular Spectacular"), and the unbearable lightness of "Forget That You're Young" facilitates the mission of its title. Elsewhere, "Raven in the Grave" hums with menace, strums with sad beauty and glows in a hazy twilight -- like a rave in the grave.

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(Photos by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)


Lil Wayne is the biggest rapper in the world, so of course he's started talking retirement. "I'm gone at, like, 35. I'm serious," the 29-year-old star said in a radio interview earlier this week. "I have four kids."

Before he rushes off to be Mr. Mom, though, he's strutting around the country, reasserting his role as a musical patriarch. Sprung from prison last November -- he served eight months at New York's Rikers Island last year for a gun possession charge -- Wayne's not only reminding the world of his spectacular rhyming talent, he's introducing us to a different family.

The "I Am Still Music" tour, which landed Friday night at Chicago's United Center, spotlights Wayne (aka Weezy, born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.) but liberally shares the limelight with several protégés -- most notably popular singer-rapper Nicki Minaj, singers Porcelain Black and Miss Shanell, a gaggle of MCs and DJs and many others.

Thomas Conner

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

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