BELLRAYS 6/9, EMPTY BOTTLE This California quartet has been cutting a swath of buzz through their home state and, last spring, through South by Southwest with their fresh and genuinely unusual blend of what they call "Maximum Rock 'n' Soul." The high-powered garage band is fronted by Lisa Kekaula, who has taken her most essential vocal lessons from Aretha Franklin. Other better-known bands (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Delta 72) who've tried to wed the R & B shtick to fierce indie rock have generated some exciting moments but fallen short of really convincing anyone that they have soul. The BellRays' small handful of uber-indie releases demonstrate that Kekaula, at least, has that. HANK WILLIAMS III 6/9, Schubas; 6/10, DOUBLE DOOR With a pedigree a Kentucky Derby contender would envy, son of Bocephus and grandson of Hank, Hank III can't be blamed for wanting to rebel a little against the assumption that he'd go into the family business. Contrariness and hard living is so much a part of the Williams mystique that even his bio makes no bones about how H III preferred punk rock to country twang. It took a $24,000 child support suit and a $300-a-week pot habit (just a variation on the "family tradition") to get him to see the lights of the Nashville skyline. His debut, Risin' Outlaw (Curb), is a perfectly solid, mildly rockabilly country record designed to appeal to Hank I cultists, outlaw-country flame bearers, and y'alternative hipsters alike. He's blessed (or cursed) with a voice that bears an unmistakable resemblance to I's (though he lacks the sense of plaintive soul) and the album goes down a bit too smooth--like the buttons were clearly marked and he just pushed 'em. He's more convincing on the mildly defiant rockers like "I Don't Know" and "If the Shoe Fits" than on the torchy ballads his grandpa would have made shiver and break. STEREOLAB 6/10, RIVIERA The key word for digging Stereolab is infectious. Keep that word in your head while rolling around the glistening fizz of something like the aptly titled "Outer Bongolia" from their mostly new The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra), which is defined as an "EP," though it's only three minutes shorter than tour mates Sonic Youth's new "full-length" NYC Ghosts & Flowers. If you keep your thinking brain engaged, you might come to a new understanding of how pop music gets its claws in you. As continually rewarding as Stereolab's records can be, I've come to the conclusion that I actually like these guys better live--their elaborate grooves take on a sharper energy in a communal setting, and the Riv can get pretty damn communal. They share the bill, perhaps excessively but not illogically, with Sonic Youth (see Critic's Choice), who are every bit as much about the politics of pure pop pleasure as Stereolab are: they just define that pleasure differently. PTSH 6/13, HOTHOUSE One of the most striking surprises about the AACM's five-day 35th anniversary fete last month at the MCA and at after-show events at three local jazz clubs was the unshakable presence of flutist Niki Mitchell. Whether she was holding her own in dazzling duets with west-coast flute titan James Newton or refusing to lose a beat in elegant leads while careening around the MCA stage on roller skates (while wearing a long dress, on a stage littered with instruments and cords), her graceful charisma made her piercing, skittering flute and vocal lines sound effortless, and ensured that she stole at least a few moments of every show she was in. It's about time this AACM School of Music teacher and David Boykin collaborator got a group of her own, and this quartet--named for one of her signature sounds--is it. HELEN MIRRA 6/14, EMPTY BOTTLE; 6/22, 1550 N. Milwaukee, top floor Local visual artist Helen Mirra--whose work is included in the MCA's "Age of Influence" exhibit--has also kept up a stream of musical releases. Her previous two records were hand-packaged ten-inch vinyl. Her first CD, Field Geometry, on the local indie label, Explain:, is a tribute to Friedrich Froebel, who in the 1830s invented the "Kindergarten," based on a series of simple geometric toys that he believed would help children understand science and nature through their natural play. Mirra incorporates the sounds of these activities with her quietly reflective, resonating guitar; recordings of looms and sewing machines and some cello, nyckleharpe, and kemence by Fred Lonberg-Holm intervene as well. The work will be presented as part of gallery installations in New York and Germany in the near future, which will probably be a more effective environment to convey what Mirra seems to be aiming at about the nature of invention and play. As a composition only, the well-ordered delicacy of her sparse guitar tones (which bear passing resemblance to other works of "down-home minimalism" like Jim O'Rourke's mid-90s John Fahey homages and Town & Country's drone pastorales) skew the balance of identification too far toward the scientist/inventor and too far away from the energetic learning of children. Wednesday she opens for Michael Snow and Alan Licht (see Critic's Choice); next Thursday she shares a CD-release event with Town & Country guitarist Ben Vida.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Anderson.