PEDAL STEEL TRANSMISSION 1/18, EMPTY BOTTLE The local band Pedal Steel Transmission are celebrating the release of their second album, In the Winter It Makes the Dead Grass Look Green. From time to time the quartet relaxes into a sort of rural-Stereolab idling in the driveway, but the eerie space blues "Sempiternal Tryst Detente" pushed me gradually to the edge of my seat. And when the band finally revs up, it really rips: on "Her Dream" or on the introductory "Sorted," guitarist Dan Schneider and pedal steel man Gary Pyskacek torture their strings into a screeching riotous glory. I want to hear them stretch the primal Can-ish chug of "Half as Well" for half an hour or so, just to see where it goes. R.L. BURNSIDE 1/19, HOUSE OF BLUES R.L. Burnside's an improbable success story: he's old, he's authentic, and he's popular with young folks--unlike, say, that poor old authentic bluesman who plays to nonplussed Blueshammer fans in Ghost World. His live album from last year, Burnside on Burnside (Fat Possum), is devoid of the various indie-rock celebs who've helped him cross over, and they'd be gratuitous anyway: Burnside's grandson Cedric contributes understated but effective drumming, and savage slide guitar master Kenny Brown plays devil's advocate as Burnside's demeanor veers from jovial to terrifying and back. SPLIT HABIT 1/20, METRO Before emo, connoisseurs of sensitive boy rock looked to power pop, of which Chicago's got a fine, if overlooked, tradition. The trio Split Habit has been toiling here quietly for nearly five years--a long time in the world of teenage summer music. Their newest release, the six-song EP [Biting My Lip], is a crunchy bit of fluff: skittery drums give Johnny Smoke's angsty but cute vocals an uneasy punch, and a hidden track, a jaunty, stiff-legged cover of "Please Please Me," points clearly to their roots. KEVIN TIHISTA'S RED TERROR 1/21, 1/28, 2/4 & 2/11, SCHUBAS Tihista's a talented eccentric whose highest-profile gigs to date have been in the alt-rock workhorse Triple Fast Action and a recent lineup of Veruca Salt. But it turns out he's been hiding his light under a bushel all these years: his debut album under his own name, Don't Breathe a Word (on Rough Trade across the pond and on Atlantic in the US), blows all that shit out of the water with one sweet breath of pealing guitar and plangent piano. Except on the sardonic and seductive "Lose the Dress," the hooks are subtle, insinuating themselves on the second or third go-round; fortunately, he'll be at Schubas every Monday for the next four weeks. CHARLATANS UK 1/22, VIC The blue-eyed-soul falsetto Tim Burgess sings in for most of the band's new Wonderland (MCA) is a little bit sexy and a little bit silly. But I'm not going to begrudge this long-suffering Manchester outfit a little goofiness--the record is well plotted and shyly funky, and I'm a fan of the unabashedly digressive lyrics: "A young boy once told me I will be an old man and I'm only 15 / It wasn't part of the dream / It wasn't part of the plan / Ever wonder how much the guy who wrote 'White Christmas' made?" This US tour is a rescheduling of one that was supposed to start circa September 11. ANNIKA BENTLEY 1/24, ABBEY PUB If Tori Amos were a little smokier, if Polly Harvey had spent a lot more time in the company of Nick Cave in his piano-man mode...and if neither had the gravitas or charisma that's earned them their cult status, they'd sound a bit like Annika Bentley, a dark-cabaret writer and pianist from upstate New York. She refers to her sound as chamber rock, and her band does have loads of strings, but that term makes me think more of pretentious stuff like the Rachel's, with which her music has little else in common. Her greatest strength on her newest, With Leak, Blink, & Breath (Billy Likes Records), is her voice, which massages her words beyond recognition and gives the undistinguished backing some enriching shadows.