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BLUE DOGS 3/26, LAKEVIEW LINKS It's hard to imagine these South Carolinians in a studio--every note on Blue Dogs, their debut album (which features new Freakwater steel guitarist Eric Heywood), has that warm-summer-night, outdoor-band-shell feel. Their laid-back blue-eyed R & B, their plaintive heartbreak tales put across painlessly, are pretty, tight, and completely untainted by originality. They make me think of how the most comfortable climate is the one you don't notice. BILL MORRISSEY 3/26, SCHUBAS Mississippi John Hurt was the most understated of Delta bluesmen--a sly, debonair lover and rambler who told his tales of lust, longing, and even murder with a droll wit and a minimum of haints and hellhounds. It seems this was part of the appeal for guitarist and storyteller Bill Morrissey, whose latest album is Songs of Mississippi John Hurt (Philo). With his smooth Cat Stevens-esque voice and elegant fingerpicking, Morrissey possibly takes that clever tastefulness a little too far--there's not much nonverbal motivation to "Shake That Thing"--but his "Coffee Blues" is a dead-on seduction and his "Beulah Land," without any showy holy rollin', captures the quiet joy of faith. WE RAGAZZI, EMPEROR PENGUIN 3/27, EMPTY BOTTLE I first saw the local trio We Ragazzi at the Fireside a year ago, and there was a shitload of potential there: they were hyperactive and fiery and traded heavily on dynamic stage presence. Their debut album, Suicide Sound System (My Pal God), is as good as I thought it would be--its 12 songs (squeezed into half an hour) make the unlikely but successful fusion of post-Jesus Lizard Chicago crunch and 60s teen garage soul, the droney groove held down by a sweaty ol' organ. The debut from We Ragazzi's labelmates Emperor Penguin, Shatter the Illusion of Integrity, Yeah, is a mostly instrumental piece of homegrown analog trip-hop, too aggressive to be ambient. But despite the duo's admirable fluidity with beats and sweeps and use of tonal colors from the whole post-rock-and-proto-funk palette, it never quite works as foreground, either. STRANGE FRIENDS 3/28, TINFISH THEATRE Gigging at various north-side venues over the last couple years, guitarist J. Johnson and mandolinist Gillian Gibson (who transforms the familiar tinkle of her instrument beyond recognition with a set of effects) have built a solid repertoire of literate melancholy pop songs, a dozen of which are showcased on their self-released debut, Bang It Out. For the most part they've focused their attention on the theater and coffeehouse scenes; the intimacy seems to have served them well in the intricacy and tastefulness of their arrangements. Sometime Falstaff and Shrimp Boat percussionist Tom Jasek, who coproduced the album, drums; Mitch Straeffer plays bass. This CD-release party is also a benefit for TinFish Theatre. MIN XIAO-FEN 3/28, CHICAGO CULTURAL CENTER Min Xiao-fen, a former soloist for the Nanjing National Music Orchestra, arrived in the U.S. in 1992 and has since enchanted a whole coterie of avant-garde Westerners with her virtuosity on the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese relative of the lute. On Viper (Avant), her 1996 collaboration with legendary improv contrarian Derek Bailey, the two build suspenseful soundscapes, plucking at each other with puckish glee. On Min's 1997 trad solo album for Asphodel, she makes the strings ring and trill and clang like watery bells, sometimes delicate and formal, sometimes dense and dark, and sometimes with an agility that would turn any bluegrass mandolinist green. And lest you think she's all work and no play, she's also collaborated with California electronic composer Carl Stone in works based on her karaoke performances of Chinese pop songs. Here she'll play both solo and with trombonist Jeb Bishop and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. MARGO HENNEBACH 3/30, FITZGERALD'S On her third album, Big Love, this Connecticut singer-songwriter fills the room with her voice, sort of like Laura Nyro without the wild-eyed unpredictability that made Nyro interesting. Hennebach appears in the CD booklet in sappy lovey-dovey poses with her accompanist husband, and the cutesiness of their creative intimacy makes "Something So Special," which would otherwise be a great three-hanky breakup song, seem a bit like a cruel tease. But it gives real-life pathos to "On Preacher Hill," for her real-life dying father-in-law. So if you enjoy having your emotions manipulated by pros, this is for you.

--Monica Kendrick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Min Xiao-Fen photo/uncredited.

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