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DAR WILLIAMS 4/19, SCHUBAS A keen eye for detail and a sobering sense of humor separate Dar Williams from the growing legions of new folkies, too many of whom borrow confessional songwriting tactics from the 60s to vent their often insignificant spleen. On her second album, Mortal City (Razor & Tie), Williams fine-tunes her delicate balance of contemplation, spirituality, and rapier wit to muse on a wide variety of subjects close to the heart. "February" bemoans the psychic war waged by winter ("And February was so long that it lasted into March") while "The Christians and the Pagans" sketches out the commonalities, differences, and indelicate remarks encountered during a strange holiday celebration ("The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch / Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, 'Is it true that you're a witch?'"). Williams's dry delivery sometimes obscures her lyrical bite, but by and large there's no contemporary folk artist as intelligent or as capable of transforming topical matters into universals. ELLIS & BRANFORD MARSALIS 4/19, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO On their recent duet collection Loved Ones (Columbia), Ellis and another of his famous sons perform 14 tunes, "each saluting a different facet of the feminine mystique." Yeah, good. Though Branford seemed on the verge of establishing a distinctive saxophone voice with his trio a few years back, he's since receded with a variety of poorly conceived one-offs, including his dull hip-hop experiment Buckshot LeFonque and a snoozy blues record. The piano-playing elder Marsalis has chops, but Wynton's stifling sobriety regarding tradition had to come from somewhere. Running through standard ballads together, as they do on the new album, they'd be great with cheap white wine and cheese at an art opening. RUN ON 4/19, LOUNGE AX On their superb debut album, Start Packing (Matador), New York's Run On tighten the pull between their pop impulses and an unbridled experimental urge. The result is a delicious tension: Sue Garner's sweet, languid, but most of all powerful vocals spin golden threads of melody while Alan Licht's nervy guitar rumbles beneath with purposeful noise and texture. Drummer Rick Brown drives the whole thing with a brilliant off-kilter gallop. When Licht sings his surprisingly hooky tunes the tension ebbs a bit, but other interesting elements arise in its stead. Filling in for keyboardist/trumpeter David Newgarden, who recently left the group, is Mark Howell, a terrific guitarist who's played in Curlew, Timber, and Better Than Death. Cibo Matto headline (see Critic's Choice). SKIP GORMAN 4/20, DAVID ADlER CULTURAL CENTER On his second collection of cowboy songs and tunes about the old west, Lonesome Prairie Love (Rounder), Skip Gorman transcends folkloric exactitude with a brisk energy and downright soulful singing. While he knows his repertoire's rich lore, his palpable exuberance for the material is what makes him stand out. BLACK GRAPE 4/21, METRO A sorry-assed bit of postpeak Manchester detritus, Black Grape, the new combo fronted by former Happy Mondays leader Shaun Ryder, feebly spin a frail web of rock, soul, hip-hop, techno, and whatever else keeps the band members from drifting off to sleep. If you're gung ho, the band's debut, It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah (Radioactive), a predictable nod to coming clean in a postrave world, contains more than enough beats to keep you on your feet, but this crap couldn't rise above your crotch even if you lay down flat. XSCAPE 4/23=25, UIC PAVILION On its second album, Off the Hook (So So Def/Columbia), this Atlanta vocal foursome succumbs to the slow-jam gloss that it avoided on much of its debut. With production by Jermaine Dupri, there's plenty of jeep beats, but the songs don't add up to much more than bland booty-grinding vamps. Xscape open for R. Kelly and LL Cool J. RICH CORPOLONGO 4/23, LUNAR CABARET and full moon cafe After decades on the local jazz scene Rich Corpolongo has finally recorded his debut as a leader--due on Delmark later this year--and it should be a cold slap of recognition to more adventurous listeners. A daring soprano saxophonist--think of Steve Lacy with a more liquid tone and a more swing-based attack--Corpolongo, who spends most of his time teaching and playing gigs in the suburbs, possesses one of the more compelling sounds in the city. For this rare gig he leads a trio featuring bassist Brian Sandstrom of the NRG Ensemble. MAN OR ASTRO-MAN? 4/25, METRO With their recently released sixth album, Experiment Zero (Touch & Go), these Alabama oddballs continue to deliver an unlikely blend of jacked-up instrumental surf rock, low-rent SF iconography, and no-time-to-wink irony. Mixing garage-rock urgency, the reverb-heavy twang-and-grind of Dick Dale, intentionally slapdash special effects (such as a homemade theremin), and chunks of dialogue lifted from old B-movies, band members Birdstuff, Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, Dexter X, and Star Crunch tweak familiar sounds with enough gonzo elan to easily transcend potential mustiness.

--Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Carrico.

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