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20 MILES 2/21, HIDEOUT Guitarist Judah Bauer, best known for his work with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, formed 20 Miles with his brother Donovan back in 1996, mostly for kicks. That's some scary talent, considering how plenty of musicians base whole careers on far more disposable music. On Keep It Coming (Fat Possum), the band's fifth album (and the first without Donovan's full-time participation), Bauer lathers up his unkempt, Stonesy blooze-rock and gives it a quick shave to make it more presentable. But the vibe is as loose and front porchy as ever--except for a few constricted moments like "Mend Your Heart," where Bauer's restrained sing-talk sounds hauntingly like latter-day Lou Reed. Ex-Delta 72 front man Greg Foreman opens. ROPE 2/22, ABBEY PUB In 2000, after playing together for two years in their native Poland, Przemyslaw Chris Drazek and Robert Iwanik of Rope moved to Chicago, where both the experimental music and the pierogi are fine, fine, fine. They've since added Chicago percussionist Michael J. Kendrick (no relation, as far as I know) and recorded Widow's First Dawn with Steve Albini, due on Family Vineyard this spring. On the new disc Rope replaces the pure atmospherics of its first EP, Fever (reissued last year), with more rock-based licks; the brooding clang that results is oddly romantic. They've also developed a hissing, wheezing vocal technique that brings to mind not only U.S. Maple (for whom they open here) but also a bit of the ol' Einsturzende Neubauten. "Love Without the Illusion of Permanence" is my favorite song title so far this year. DAMO SUZUKI 2/22, FIRESIDE BOWL Damo Suzuki's Network is a loose international collection of musicians the eccentric former Can front man has deemed flexible and intuitive enough to work with him. Not surprisingly, it's committed to harnessing collective energy, acting very little like a team of hired guns. Suzuki's Empty Bottle performance last May with Network members Cul de Sac was possibly the most amazing example of artist-audience connection I've ever seen--by midshow he was joyously bounding into the crowd to hug everyone within reach. I can't promise that Defender, his backing trio this time around, will deliver the same caliber of ecstatic pulse and drone, but with Suzuki calling the shots, anything seems possible. BLACK KEYS 2/23, METRO The gritty lo-fi sound of this Ohio duo's debut, The Big Come Up (Alive), has gotten it compared to the White Stripes and Mountain--even a few majors listened in. But the Black Keys chose to bed down with Fat Possum, who'll release their follow-up, Thick Freakness, in April and should be a fitting home for the band's soul-inflected fervor. Sleater-Kinney (whose One Beat I found fierier, more diverse, and flat-out better than All Hands on the Bad One) headlines; locals Sweet Heat (another Delta 72 vet, Kim Thompson, with the Countdown's Tamar Berk) open. This show is sold-out. MARK MALLMAN 2/23, HIDEOUT Though his fourth album, The Red Bedroom (Guilt Ridden Pop), earned him a small cult following, Mark Mallman will probably be forever known as "the Marathon Man" back in the Twin Cities. Two years ago, he took over the basement of a Saint Paul club to play his 26-hour song "Marathon," reading from a sheaf of lyrics as hefty as a novel manuscript and using 30 backing musicians, who played in shifts. Reports from the event all agree that Mallman's spacey quavering cut out halfway through, and he cheerfully continued to rasp, mumble, and creak for the duration. Who's Gonna Save You Now?, an EP of outtakes from The Red Bedroom, shares a tad more than any nonfan needs to know about his angst and his creative process, but it's still a perfectly listenable introduction to his pop style--Randy Newman gone glam. THE PROM 2/27, SCHUBAS Yet more children of the corn from Omaha. The three members of the Prom all sing a bit and play keyboards, and on their new album, Under the Same Stars (Barsuk), they lay on the extras--winds and strings and choirs--to drive home beyond all doubt or denial that we're listening to something Beautiful and Sad. And so we are, I guess. But as with the Radar Brothers or the Soundtrack of Our Lives, the Prom's heavily orchestrated pop often sounds like an exercise, as if they're seeing how many ways they can align Tab A with Slot B. Nothing wrong with that sort of formal ingenuity--as long as folks don't kid themselves into thinking this stuff is necessarily more emotionally pure or direct than, say, fusion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Carney.

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