NERVOUS CENTER FESTIVAL OF IMPROVISED MUSIC through 2/4, NERVOUS CENTER Although the Nervous Center--an almost unnaturally comfortable Lincoln Square coffeehouse whose dank basement has hosted a healthy mix of local hopefuls and nationally and internationally known experimental musicians--isn't closing until February 17, this last-blast-style festival gathers many of the Chicagoans who've bounced their sounds (and heads) off the low ceiling over the past several years. Highlights include sets by the Rosenberg Skronktet, whose large-scale works in progress had some wonderful moments at the Empty Bottle a few weeks ago; the promising, industrious Eric Roth Trio; and a quartet with Fred Lonberg-Holm, Josh Abrams, Michael Zerang, and Jeff Parker. See the Jazz listings for the complete lineup. DAVE FISCHOFF 2/2, EMPTY BOTTLE The second album from this South Bend native, The Ox and the Rainbow (due on Secretly Canadian on February 12), is a stunner. Fischoff, who now lives in Chicago, layers his voice in lush arrangements that make judicious use of loops and found sounds. The song structures vaguely remind me of the Flaming Lips' most recent masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, and there's also some less pinpointable quality that brings to mind Element of Light-era Robyn Hitchcock. But Fischoff's definitely got his own sound--and it's strong enough to support wildly romantic lyrics like "A fan mumbles a loose hymn, blows her thoughts about the room / They plume, leave the window and willow / Down the street, to bicycles / And wandering dogs, to settle in the hats of the newspaper men / Her throat is crammed with stars that will not birth." (If you like that, you might want to check out his eponymously titled book of poems, also available from Secretly Canadian.) ERIC ZIEGENHAGEN 2/2, LULA CAFE Ziegenhagen has made his name here and in his native Minneapolis as a playwright and director--in Chicago, as a kindred spirit of the Curious Theater Branch bunch, he's adapted Beau O'Reilly's short story "The House on the Lake by the Woods Near the Ocean" for the stage and directed Jenny Magnus's The Strange, showing great ease with the innovative and surreal. His own lyrics are imaginative, as you might expect: on a tape he sent me recorded live at the Lunar Cabaret in 1998, he sings a lot about cold and snow, as is appropriate to a Great Lakes guy, using inclement weather to launch into a sort of atmospheric poetry of extremity in which the characters dodge monsters and love each other in the same kind of dreamy haze. But, oddly, his music is as plain as homemade white bread--simple, melodic folk songs without the slightest hint of the slightest consideration of going out on a limb. MORENO 2/5, EMPTY BOTTLE; 2/7, FUEL On their 1999 release, Thirty Three Minutes and Eleven Seconds Later...(on their own label, Simian, which has one of the cutest logos I've ever seen), these Chicagoans roar, bark, wail, and croon six tunes' worth of rough-around-the-edges, damaged-puppy-dog alterna-rock. Boy, guys have midlife crises younger and younger these days: "These morning hours spent wishing I had yesterday again have opened my eyes to all that I've lost, or pushed away," reads the soliloquy that serves as the EP's liner notes. On the other hand, twentysomething angst beats unresolved teenage angst carried into the 20s (see Eminem) any day of the week. BEAUTY SHOP 2/7, SCHUBAS This Champaign-Urbana trio's first full-length, Yr Money or Yr Life (Mud), mines the same dank dark American soil as alt-country mavericks like 16 Horsepower and the Handsome Family, though the band's not nearly as wild as the former or as visionary as the latter. I hate to describe music in terms of other music it reminds me of, but these guys have yet to develop enough presence for me to think of them only in terms of themselves. Based on the solid songwriting, though, I'd expect them to grow as they get used to travel, adventure, and competition. CENTRAL FALLS 2/8, HIDEOUT Guitarist Ben Vida's other band, Town and Country, has been exploring the marrow in the skeleton of old-timey music for a couple years now. But Central Falls, with his brother, Adam, makes the relationship of pre-Nashville country and minimalism slightly more apparent by sticking to the basic framework of the song. The CD-R they sent me, a sampler from a forthcoming album, is slow and melancholy and soulful in a way that occasionally echoes the very early Cowboy Junkies--and I mean that as a compliment. Pedal steel by Steve Dorocke lends a high lonesome edge that the Vida brothers' wistful singing doesn't quite have, and Jason Adasiewicz's drumming stays gentle. Gorgeous stuff, but a little yodeling or
instrumental swagger would go a long way here.