JOHN KRUTH 1/19, BEAT KITCHEN John Kruth is nothing if not eclectic. He's a former touring member of the Violent Femmes and a collaborator of Elliott Sharp; last year he published a biography of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and now he's working on one about Townes Van Zandt. And though he bills himself as "America's Baddest Mandolinist," on his latest album, Everywhere You've Never Been (Label M), he downplays both his virtuosity and his main ax, playing smarty-pants singer-songwriter over a mix of horns, reeds, whistles, and Middle Eastern instruments. Tunes like "Beatnik Vampire" ("Gonna drink your blood / Like a bottle of muscatel"), "The Queen of Country Music" ("She's a shinin' angel up on stage / She's a demon at the bar"), and "Mrs. Chagall" ("Mrs. Chagall is climbing the wall / Her hair has turned green / And a blue goat is playing the fiddle") are clever and beautifully arranged (in the liner notes Kruth thanks both the Klezmatics and Ween), but I guess I was hoping for a little more, well, jam. In this stripped-down gig, with bassist Mike Kashou and percussionist Steve Bear, the forecast seems better for some serious mandolining. CHESTNUT STATION 1/20, EMPTY BOTTLE A couple years ago, when this local "supergroup" put out its debut EP, I thought guitarist Rick Rizzo's participation was the most egregious waste of talent since Orson Welles made those Paul Masson wine commercials. But sometime between then and this past May, when most of the band's first full-length, In Your Living Room (Drag City), was recorded live at the Hideout, Chestnut Station decided to get serious about their frivolity. In a display of humility and heart that, fairly or not, you'd hardly expect from a Drag City house party, they've recorded an all-covers set of well-chosen pop and soul tunes, including the Detroit Wheels single "Breakout," the Kinks' goofy "Sitting on My Sofa," the Fun & Games' bubblenugget "Elephant Candy," and not one but three cuts by prolific R & B composer Don Covay. Rizzo still can do no wrong, playing loose and boisterous, while fellow guitarist John Whitney gives his wah pedal a workout; front man Rian Murphy makes up for in conviction what his voice lacks in texture; newish member Mark Greenberg adds a layer of lively Stax-style organ fills. They even sound like they practiced. MAESTRO SUBGUM & THE WHOLE 1/20, OLD TOWN SCHOOL In its heyday this kitchen-sink amalgamation, the musical face of the Curious Theatre Branch gang, was the spiritual kin of Tom Waits and David Thomas, but the avant-garde theater scene and the avant-garde music scene have drifted apart since Maestro member Micky Greenberg quit booking music at the Lunar Cabaret, and the band's self-released CDs are now hard to find. Though Maestro Subgum's lineup was never carved in stone, the version that's been planning this one-off reunion for the past six months is a classic one, with Greenberg; Beau, Colm, and Kate O'Reilly; Jenny Magnus; Bob Jacobson; Ned Folkerth; Blair Thomas; and Mark Messing. CAN-KY-REE 1/21 & 28, CALIFORNIA CLIPPER; 1/23, SCHUBAS This is a Chicago trio of quiet masters: pianist and bassist Ryan Hembrey, pedal-steel guitarist Steve Dorocke, and guitarist and singer Tom Musick. Hembrey and Dorocke have contributed their talents as sidemen to numerous projects, and here emerge as backseat drivers on Musick's long and serpentine road trip through eerie and melancholy Americana. On the band's self-released debut, they navigate rueful honky-tonk, moody insinuations, and sinister quasi-Appalachian balladry with equal grace. These guys have actually provided background music for drinking at the California Clipper every week for several months now--but secrets don't keep well in Chicago, and they're bound for higher-profile gigs. DEL REY 1/21, SCHUBAS The local instrumental quartet Del Rey is currently at work on a full-length with Jason Ward, an engineer who's also worked with Sleater-Kinney and the Dirty Three--two bands noted for their judicious use of soft-loud dynamics. But at least on their 1999 EP, Dlry, Del Rey don't show a notable flair for drama. A collegiate determination to play correctly rather than counterintuitively pervades the four tracks, and though the pace varies, the music is oddly static. There's potential, though--"Macondo" includes a good dose of what can only be described as kick-ass space rock. FRIFOT 1/21, HOTHOUSE This top-notch Swedish trad trio last visited Chicago during the 1999 World Music Festival. Fans of Celtic music will find its music--played on fiddle, viola, bagpipes, dulcimer, harp, whistles, and the mandola, a cousin of the mandolin--familiar and accessible. Yet there's something crisp and--I hate to say it--icy about Frifot's intricately interwoven string and vocal lines. They're the musical translation of a full moon reflected on snow, beautiful and biting. THE LAPSE 1/25, EMPTY BOTTLE New Yorkers Chris Leo and Toko Yasuda initiated the Lapse as something other than a band, having soured on the notion of band-per-se after their previous group, the Van Pelt, broke up--but they can't have been completely unaware of the aphrodisiac effect of swearing that you'll never fall in love again. Last year's Heaven Ain't Happenin' (Southern) generated a buzz with good reason: it's an accessible and clever bit of noise pop not too far removed from what Yasuda's other old band Blonde Redhead used to do. Guitars chug and chime over precise chunks of drumming by a rotating cast of percussionists, and Yasuda sings with a flat affect before swaying into rant. Lyrics range from vaguely political ("Buffet," which complains that "this country of continents is a culture of condiments") to vaguely creepy ("So many times I ate your thighs and pressed your skull so tightly to mine and imagined laboratories open overnight with one wall dedicated to a locked glass case with an as of yet unsigned trophy inside inscribed 'platinum sentience,'" from "Dragonflies") to unintelligible (if you don't speak Japanese, anyway). The drummer this time around is Adam Wade, formerly of Jawbox and Shudder to Think.