FUZZY COMETS 2/18, HEARTLAND CAFE This Pittsburgh folk-rock band's first full-length, Strong Man (Devour Records), is a sugary amalgamation of pop hooks, violin ripples, and purty harmonizing borrowed from some "folk" somewhere who would all have perfect teeth if they existed. It has its share of ear-catching moments, but I'm nonetheless compelled to rant: Musicians, a surefire way to prejudice me against your music is to send me a press kit full of Lilith Fair reminiscences and sanctimonious twitter about the "issue" of "promoting female artists." Promoting female artists isn't much of an issue when said artists are trying to elbow their way into the pink-collar ghetto of slick, nonthreatening girl-next-door folk rock. Lord knows stage fright is an illness that deserves its own telethon (perhaps with Liz Phair as Jerry Lewis), but being female isn't, and showing up on ladies' night with an acoustic guitar in hand does not firebrand activism make. Pleas for "support" at this point merely continue to suggest that women need to be propped up. KID SNACK 2/18, FIRESIDE BOWL Recently signed to the Smoking Popes' Double Zero label and about to record their first full-length (their debut, The Jimbo EP, was originally issued on Knoxville's Shady Troll records), these high-octane, eerily tight, and not-revoltingly-cute Knoxville pop punks used to call themselves Snack Crapple Pox, until they realized that their drunken fans would forever mangle the name. I sure hope their willingness to dumb down doesn't leak into their music. PLASTICS HI-FI 2/18, DOUBLE DOOR ; 2/23 phyllis' musical inn This is a release party for Home Brewed, the second album from Chicago's own Elephant 6 should-have-beens. "Recorded in basements and bedrooms," it's a self-released, self-everythinged collection of painstakingly constructed pomo trip-pop, the kind of thing in which every sound (the tortured organs, the warped guitars, the Mellotron strings, the seamless harmonies) and every non sequitur ("It's a Hank Williams Jr. world now") evokes some other record or pop-culture phenomenon. But while it's not quite up to the standards of the best relics of the Golden Age of Overproduction (tunes, guys, this stuff needs tunes) it's a lot better than many of the more-hyped shadow records. SUGARFOOT 2/18, MARTYRS' A friend of mine raised these questions in a mix-tape swap a few months ago, and I'm still pondering them. In the 70s, were there really more male singers who naturally sounded kind of like Robert Plant or Jack Bruce or Ian Gillan than there are now? Was there some kind of cosmic event or chemical spill that gave so many guys of the early 90s that throaty, earnest Vedderstipe quality? And how come in recent years, in singing as in couture, it's become cool to crib shamelessly from all over the time line? Milwaukee's Sugarfoot, for instance, borrows liberally from the Byrds, the Eagles, and Wilco on its most recent album, Take a Picture (Karmadillo). They do it awfully well--the songwriting is way above average, and little touches of fiddle and harmony are applied with minor genius. Very cute puppy-mill pups--Americana is all about familiarity anyway. URT 2/18, ELBO ROOM Chicago hard rock exists in a weird time warp--more than once I've heard the scene called "where the 80s went to die--but didn't." The proximity of Cheap Trick and plentiful postcollegiate bars apparently continues to breed throwback rock by bands too young to realize they sound like Loverboy. This show is a record-release party for the local quartet URT, whose first full-length, It's Alright (N-Space Productions), is a very nicely recorded example of the species. MABEL MABEL 2/19, ELBO ROOM This band thinks a backthroat warble constitutes a "Janis Joplin influence" and gratuitous accordion a "Tom Waits influence," and its songs don't live up to even the meager promise of their titles--"Jackie Said" is nowhere near as good an attempt to write a Jane's Addiction song as "Jane Said" was to write a Lou Reed song. X 2/23 & 24, HOUSE OF BLUES X were once possibly Los Angeles's greatest contribution to rock 'n' roll, but by the end of the 80s they wore their seminalness around their necks like an albatross. Done in by the deadly combination of attrition, major-label ennui, and John Doe and Exene Cervenka's splintering marriage, they've re-formed only intermittently since making the disappointing "comeback" Hey Zeus! in 1993. The last time they played Chicagoland was at the poorly organized Guinness Fleadh in '98; that gig, for all its flaws, was one of the first since 1985 to feature the original lineup, with blazing guitarist Billy Zoom--the X factor, you might say--back in the fold. This two-night stand, again with all four original members, is a one-shot deal engineered by the begging and nagging of fans in the House of Blues talent department, so who knows when or if it'll happen again. The Bomb opens the first night; the Nerves open the second.