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HEATHER NOVA, BEN FOLDS FIVE 10/27, DOUBLE DOOR Melodramatic songstress Heather Nova, who was raised on a houseboat in Bermuda but now lives in England, might well have a gift for crafting overripe pop songs, but her singing consistently detracts from any attention they might warrant. When I've been able to wade through her vocal quagmire her writing has reminded me of Kate Bush and Tori Amos--more concerned with evocation than melody. The typically hyperbolic and inaccurate British weeklies have lobbed plenty of PJ Harvey comparisons her way, but given the way her vocals leap from breathy whispers to nearly screeching bombast, Sinead O'Connor is more like it. Ben Folds Five, a trio from Chapel Hill, delivers a fairly distinctive racket on its eponymous debut--a tight, rocking sound entirely without guitar. Singer-pianist Ben Folds has some sharp melodic gifts, but when he's not suggesting Ian Hunter or Look Sharp-era Joe Jackson the music tends to devolve into a simpy cross between Elton John fluff and flamboyant show tunes. Blech! CANDLEBOX 10/27, UIC PAVILION The world's worst arena rock band returns to support its piddling sophomore effort, Lucy (Maverick/Warner Brothers). The bill includes two other mediocrities, Sponge and Our Lady Peace, making this perhaps the most tedious triple bill of the year. A decade ago a debacle like this would have been acted out by Cinderella, Saga, and maybe Gene Loves Jezebel. KARP 10/27, EMPTY BOTTLE This trio from Tumwater, Washington, mucks around in the same noisy sludge as its former neighbors the Melvins. On their recently released second album, Suplex (K), Karp lumber through bass-heavy distortion and unhinged molasses-to-middling rhythms, and while there are certain joys to be had in the rock 'n' roll hand claps that punctuate "Connect 5," by and large these cretins are too busy trying to sound heavy to worry about anything else. Playing catch with an anvil would be more fun. URBAN KNIGHTS 10/27, BISMARCK Fronted by keyboardist Ramsey Lewis and local saxophone star Art Porter, Urban Knights is a fuzak supergroup of sorts. Before Porter came on board, Grover Washington Jr. played on the group's eponymous debut, an antiseptic effort that reduces contemporary jazz-pop styles to music that's just about right for the dentist's office. Call it aural wallpaper: you don't need to pay much attention to it, you only have to know it's there. MARK WHITFIELD QUARTET 10/27-29, JAZZ SHOWCASE Twenty-eight-year-old guitarist Mark Whitfield uses his clean, unadorned tone to glide through hard bop, often infusing it with a heady dose of the blues. His new album 7th Ave. Stroll (Verve) is a musical portrait of New York City that recalls the sound of the late Joe Pass. If Whitfield occasionally seems a bit detached, opting for tricky runs at the expense of real feeling, his music never approaches the lifestyle-accoutrement status of Urban Knights. SPACEHOG 10/28, METRO Leeds-to-NYC transplants with a serious glam-era David Bowie jones, Spacehog purvey grittier, less silky approximations of various Ziggy-isms but with lyrics so moronic you'll probably sense a Spinal Tap influence lurking beneath the sounds. They open for alt-rock bozos Tripping Daisy. CAPSIZE 7 10/28, LOUNGE AX On its recent debut album, Mephisto (Caroline), this Chapel Hill foursome delivers the same sounds as most every other band from down there. If you can't get what you need from Superchunk and Archers of Loaf, don't expect to be satisfied by the slightly darker Capsize 7. LUCY KAPLANSKY 10/29, OLD TOWN SCHOOL In support of her debut album, The Tide (Red House), Chicago native Lucy Kaplansky makes her first local performance since moving to New York. Her lovely but strong, clear voice puts her in the same class of first-rate new folkies as the album's producer, Shawn Colvin. Between her interesting song selection (Richard Thompson, Bill Morrissey, Tom Russell) and the quality of her originals, she clearly has the smarts and talent to stand out. SHAGGY 10/29, CUBBY BEAR On the strength of his recent hit "Boombastic" this Jamaican expatriate continues to insinuate dancehall into America's usually implacable pop conscience. Shaggy has proved an adept populist, tempering his toasts--the reggae equivalent of raps--with forward-looking pop production tricks and guest spots from R & B singers like Wayne Wonder and hip-hoppers like Grand Puba. If the less flexible, more genuinely Jamaican Ini Kamoze can score a big hit with "Here Comes the Hotstepper," this fellow should resonate even louder through America's big shopping malls. FIG DISH 10/29, DOUBLE DOOR Fig Dish may be the least celebrated of Chicago's current wave of alternative chart sniffers (Veruca Salt, Loud Lucy, Triple Fast Action), but the modest, subtle charms found on their debut album, That's What Love Songs Often Do (Atlas), might make them the most consistent of the crew. True, the songwriting of Rick Ness and Blake Smith ain't particularly earth-shattering, but when paired with the combo's rock-solid tightness, their meat 'n' potatoes pop rock provides the requisite hooky pleasures without the copycat bitterness or saccharine aftertaste of their above-mentioned compatriots. They've come a long way in the last few years, and since not everyone can lead the revolution, that's probably enough. FLEDGLING 11/2, DOUBLE DOOR In their desire to look just like the Cranberries, Fledgling neglected to think too much about their sound. The result: Pat Benatar fronting any generic alternative-rock combo.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): phot/Jake Chessum.

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