COURSE OF EMPIRE 3/4, METRO This Dallas unit is surely of the generation that musically came of age viewing Jane's Addiction: like that band, it brings a whole slate of pretensions to aggressive, guitar-dominated music tinged with that good old gothic tribalism. Why bother with melody when you can concentrate instead on guitar effects (Course of Empire opt for a flat metallic swirl)? Why vary tempos or dynamics when your singer (Vaughn Stevenson) engages in fictional chats with Charles Darwin (on the current single "Infested," a tune the lyricist claims is about "population control")? These concerned artistes open for the equally deadly serious Machines of Loving Grace. TRUMANS WATER 3/4, LOUNGE AX Over the course of three albums this purposely enigmatic San Diego outfit has shed its almost embarrassing reliance on early Pavement and Slint. What they do now is a bit harder to explain, but avoiding the obvious seems to be their essential goal, even at the expense of listenability. Chaotic, choppy, droning, and sputtering, their music confuses as much as it intrigues, but at this point I'm not sure which side of the line they walk: bullshit or brilliance. JOHNBOY 3/4, EMPTY BOTTLE Floor-pounding, slate gray ugly-rock grime with buried, pained vocals from Austin. Uh, yeah. They play with the never-say-die God Bullies and Dis. MONSTERLAND 3/4, THURSTON'S There's something kind of backward about Americans mimicking the British penchant for twee pop crooning over loud guitar swooshing, but Monsterland, a trio from Connecticut, does just that. As hard as they try their songs fail to sink hooks, and their peachy, gee-whiz head wagging goes down like a swig of corn syrup. They open for Boston's Morphine, who are in the middle of a miniresidency in Chicago with gigs Saturday at Lounge Ax (see below) and Sunday at Empty Bottle. BEN HARPER 3/4, SCHUBAS, 3/5, FITZGERALD'S This 24-year-old sensation from the area just east of LA known as the Inland Empire brings strains of country blues to rock in much the same way as his influences Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. His smoky, soulful voice is full of restrained power, his melodic sensibilities are on track, and his skills on acoustic guitar, dobro, and the Weissenborn--a hollow-necked lap slide guitar built during the 20s and 30s--are prodigious, but his songwriting needs some fine tuning. His lyrics reveal a naive, albeit earnest, and simplistic thrust; his striking debut, Welcome to the Cruel World (Virgin), has affecting gems scattered throughout, but when he dabbles in politics and social problems his heart-on-sleeve, hippie-touched exhortations trip him up. His Saturday show is the opener for Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men (see Critic's Choice). FLAP 3/5, LOUNGE AX Acoustic guitars carry such unshakable folk connotations that when a rock band employs the instrument in novel ways, the music leaps right out. Flap are a two-guitars-and-drums trio from Atlanta who, as evinced on their recent Pal (Half Baked), skirt around the contours of pop tunes with a twisted blend of overdriven drumming and busy, obtuse string noodling. The music, combined with their effectively mumbled vocals, suggests that Flap are uninterested in sharp definition, but the power of veiled suggestion over straightforward delivery only makes their excursions more compelling. Live, there could be even more spiky spontaneity or it could turn to mush; keep your fingers crossed. They open for Morphine and the Sea & Cake. RONNY JORDAN 3/6, CUBBY BEAR British guitarist Jordan is loosely affiliated with acid jazz, that English-born movement that seeks to marry hip-hop and jazz. He participated on Gangstarr rapper Guru's rather lukewarm attempt at this fusion, Jazzmatazz (Chrysalis); returning the favor, Guru provides the rap on the opening cut of Jordan's second album, The Quiet Revolution (4th & Broadway). While enthusiasts of the form and WNUA programmers maintain that acid jazz is simply the latest phase in the expansion of the genre, much like fusions of jazz with bossa nova or funk in the past, the truth is this stuff squelches much of jazz's essential spirit. While certainly rhythmic, and even funky, the primarily canned drum parts--although Jordan employs real drummers--deny jazz's improvisational, spontaneous feel. Jordan's guitar playing recalls tepid late Wes Montgomery (whose "Mr. Walker" he covers), resulting in a music that aside from its dope street beats isn't too far removed from Kenny G and Najee. This is aural wallpaper for the oversize-trousers crowd. SURGERY 3/9, AVALON These guys have finally dropped their pose as down-and-out, dangerous rockers, a pretension that accompanied their move from Syracuse to the Lower East Side and was showcased on their 1990 debut Nationwide (Amphetamine Reptile). Surgery's major-label debut, the forthcoming Shimmer (Atlantic), finds them reveling instead in brainless hard-rock gunk--overly familiar turf maybe, but somehow even despite Sean McDonnell's rangeless singing they make the stupidity of it work.