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HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES 2/25, THURSTON'S This trio from Cedar Falls, Iowa, has been slogging away at the club circuit since 1987, honing both its skills and its fairly nondescript hard rock. While the just-released My Ass-Kickin' Life (Red Decibel/Columbia), its third album, certainly marks some kind of zenith--tighter playing, snappier production, moderate tunefulness--these three remain likable champs of mediocrity, continually improving at nothing in particular. If you're feeling kind of silly and only want to rock out HOLS will certainly get the job done, but then so would thousands of other bands. Don't you deserve better? FREYDA & ACOUSTIC ATTATUDE 2/25, OLD TOWN SCHOOL A diverse vocal-and-string folk trio, Freyda & Acoustic AttaTude cover broad terrain: their recent debut, Midnight at Cabell Hall (Red House), includes a rendition of Nanci Griffith's "Time Alone," a traditional Bulgarian tune, and a Telemann sonata along with a few originals. Leader and violin and viola player Freyda Epstein possesses a pure, keening voice that reacts with the vocals of guitar and cittern player Bob Vasile to produce warm, pretty harmonies, and bass violinist Ralph Gordon's full-bodied presence lushly fills in the gaps. NEW HORIZONS ENSEMBLE 2/25, HOTHOUSE Veterans of the AACM's third wave, the New Horizons Ensemble have crafted a striking take on pithy freebop. On its just-released second album, the terrific South Side Street Songs (Silkheart), the group masterfully sculpts ornate melodies reminiscent of 50s bop and then pushes them over the edge. Truly explosive solos from saxist and leader Ernest Dawkins, cool-handed expositions from young guitarist Jeffery Parker, and brawny, snorted bits from trombonist Steve Berry and trumpeter Ameen Muhammad are pushed along by powerhouse drummer Avreeayl Ra and muscular bassist Yosef Ben Israel. The catchy heads and comforting, driving vamps attract and ground the listener while the freedom-seeking solos veer toward incisive abstraction. One of the more inviting envelope-pushing combos going. TORTOISE 2/26, LOUNGE AX Superficially an "all-star" side project of bassists and drummers--Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day), John McEntire (Gastr del Sol, the Sea & Cake, Red Crayola, ex-Bastro), John Herndon (ex-Poster Children), and Bundy K. Brown (Gastr del Sol, ex-Bastro)--Tortoise experiment with sound and rhythm in decidedly nonobvious ways. Although it sounds nothing like reggae, their music has a strong dub undertone. A large, rumbling bass and a sharp melodic line (also on bass) mesh contrapuntally while dense percussion cascades over and under them; melodica, vibraphone, primitive synthesizer, organ, and the occasional mumbled vocal also work their way into the fold. It's music for people with patience; on their forthcoming, self-titled debut on Thrill Jockey Records, Tortoise's tunes unfold slowly, the musicians building a gorgeous tension from a small melodic kernel through measured, careful exposition. Their two previous live gigs have not been flawless, but they have been rather fascinating. Herndon is currently on tour with the Mekons, so filling in will be Dan Bitney (Uptighty, ex-Tar Babies). They open for the Ex & Tom Cora (see Critic's Choice). JIMMIE DALE GILMORE 2/26, WILLIAM RAINEY HARPER COLLEGE, 2/27, PARK WEST This venerable outsider country/roots rocker from Texas has been enjoying his greatest success ever with the release of the remarkable Spinning Around the Sun (Elektra) last year. On it Gilmore applies his distinctive warble to tunes by a bunch of his Texas pals (including Butch Hancock and Jo Carol Pierce), a Hank Williams Sr. classic, a few stunning originals, and more, all of them imbued with his refusal to recognize standard genre boundaries. UNSANE 3/3, LOUNGE AX If the ceaseless shuffle of bleak winter days has you thinking about drowning yourself in the cold, murky depths of Lake Michigan, may I suggest a less hasty, less permanent solution? Go see Unsane, a New York trio who relentlessly churn out huge, pummeling slabs of ugly rock, all gray sonic sludge with the dynamic range of an anvil slamming into the ground. The transistor quality of the vocals that grace their recordings, including the just-released Total Destruction (Matador/Atlantic), makes it difficult to glean just what kind of angst they're suffering from, but titles like "Body Bomb" and "Blood Boy" and a proclivity for catsup-drenched album covers--their debut pictured a decapitated mannequin sopped in a big puddle of Heinz--makes it a pretty sure bet they aren't crooning about picking spring flowers. When you step back outside you'll find hope, beauty, and joy even in the mounds of blackened slush lining the sidewalk.

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