Utonian_Automatic (Thrill Jockey), the second album by Isotope 217, is a small miracle of production detail. Little electronic burrs catch on the pant legs of passing rhythms, manipulated vinyl rustles in a thicket of John Herndon and Dan Bitney's percussion, a keyboard noise grows fuzzy and then completely distorts while subtle shifts in resonance draw attention from deep focus to picture plane. Masterfully mixed by Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire, the record doesn't reveal too much about Isotope 217's live show, which is tighter and more concentrated than it was when the first album came out, in 1997: they had a propensity for jamming and sometimes seemed outright averse to getting their act together ahead of time. In the last year, they've toured extensively, growing into a tighter team, leaning more lightly on the electric-Miles crutch and at the same time amassing an impressive international following for their adventurous admixture of fusion, hip-hop, dub, electronica, funk, and jazz. Without trombonist Sara P. Smith, who's recovering from tendinitis, they've also had to become a leaner melodic outfit, relying on guitarist Jeff Parker and cornetist Rob Mazurek (who doubles on keyboards to good effect) to state themes and do the bulk of the improvising, usually over cool ostinatos and heavy beats. Some highlights of the new record that translate well live: "Looking After Life on Mars" has Afrobeat in its grooves, and on "Solaris" the group gets mellow with Herndon on vibes and a great slow-mo solo by Parker. Sunday, 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. John Corbett
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Toliver.