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UTOPIA CARCRASH 4/3, EMPTY BOTTLE I put on this Chicago quintet's debut CD, dug a few minutes of pleasantly discordant throb 'n' drone, and stepped out for a minute to check the mail. When I came back, the damn thing was bubbling over with some multi-colored Lava-like goo, rather like those monster-factory toys that were all the rage when I was a kid. Guitarist Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave) is also the publisher of the beautifully illustrated, lovingly hand-lettered underground psychedelia zine Galactic Zoo Dossier, so he's not afraid to wear his joyful-noise influences (Ash Ra Tempel, Skullflower, the Dead C) on his presumably billowy sleeve. Tarwater (see Critic's Choice) headlines.

SONIA 4/4, SCHUBAS If there's any validity to the music world's ascendancy-of-women hype, it's to be found in the audiences, not the artists. Singer-songwriter folk in general and "womyn's music" in particular thrive on intimacy--like a pontificating stranger you're trapped on a bus with or a close friend confessing, depending on your worldview. What's brought more and more women out of their bedrooms toting guitars isn't an increase in superstar role models--it's an increasing confidence that people are actually interested in what they have to sing.

And in the wake of the Indigo Girls, smart, simple, sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassingly direct lesbian folk has picked up a lot of listeners from the mainstream-folk and indie-rock scenes as well. Disappear Fear cofounder Sonia Rutstein's solo debut, Almost Chocolate (Philo), falls like a well-timed raindrop right into the mouth of this trend, keeping it simple, touching, and very, very direct, with only a rare stray lick of electric guitar or buzz of Dylan-esque harmonica to briefly distract you from her road stories, love songs, and pleas for peace in the Middle East.

ZEN GUERRILLA 4/4, EMPTY BOTTLE I'm not sure what this long-lived Philadelphia quartet was thinking when it moved to San Francisco--its latest, Positronic Raygun (Alternative Tentacles), sounds far too fired by barbecued red meat, cigarette smoke, and macrobrew to have emerged from that clean-living theme park. In fact, I think its roaring, shit-kicking, occasionally psychedelic high-powered R & B--shades of the MC5 and the Nuge in his prime--really belongs in Detroit, and these guys lose badass points for not moving there instead. Chicago's Cash Money gain badass points for letting a band on the bill that just might blow them away at their own CD-release party.

MICHELLE MALONE 4/6, MARTYRS' Well, if intimacy is one form of intensity, volume is another, and this Atlanta singer-songwriter's debut, Beneath the Devil Moon (Velvel), boasts full-throttle vocals and loud guitars, as Malone blows through tuneful mainstream-rock cliches as if she invented them. She aims for redemption by sheer conviction, understanding that these jangly, bluesy sounds are the car you gotta drive to get to the big stages, and in the process manages to make naked ambition charming. --Monica Kendrick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Zen Guerrilla photo/ uncredited.

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