THOSE PEABODYS 7/18, SUBTERRANEAN This Austin buzz band is claiming its piece of the back-to-AOR action on its second album, Unite Tonight; the lesson here is that you can't be afraid to be annoying if you're going to try to sell this stuff straight. Bassist and front man Clarke Wilson has a scratchy squawk that sticks to the dueling Les Pauls like a patina of well-aged sweat. That is to say, this timeless trash sounds older than it is and is played with no perceptible irony. DEANNA VARAGONA 7/18, ABBEY PUB The tireless Deanna Varagona ran a down-home revue called the Gospel Jubilee for a while there; she's sung and/or played baritone sax with Yo La Tengo, Giant Sand, Manishevitz, Alejandro Escovedo, and Chris Mills, among others; and she's the lone correspondent at Lambchop's Chicago bureau. On her new album, The Goodbyes Have All Been Taken. Hello (Gadfly), she continues her campaign to restore the once-close ties between country and blues; her thick, throaty voice makes the job that much easier. She tries too hard sometimes, like on the sparse acoustic blues "Dag Rag," but when she runs a straightforward country ballad (say, Hazel Dickens's "My Better Years" or her own "Gardener Man") through her formidable pipes it's as if she's calling out for a town, a stage, and a band big enough to contain her--which her trio isn't, quite. A bigger lineup, with Robbie Fulks on guitar, will back her at this record-release show. VORTIS 7/18, GUNTHER MURPHY'S These locals are out to polarize their audiences, and so far it's working--I've actually had people get mad at me for recommending them. Painfully loud and confrontational, Vortis is determined to keep every performance unpredictable even at the cost of derailing it. On their second full-length, God Won't Bless America (full disclosure: I contributed a few background yelps to one track), they're at it full tilt: cutting up audio footage to make Dubya trade fours with Osama, creating new sing-along anthems by pumping the old patriotic ones full of their own pissed-off, prankish invective. When they're on, their post-Situationist sense of shock value lets them spit on the flag-wavers and make it rock like no one since the Dead Kennedys at their peak. They're not picky enough about their targets--cell-phone junkies, Vegas, and Indiana rednecks don't seem worth the bother--but their apocalyptic zeal raises the bar for the whole scene. This is a release party. BRAIN SURGEONS 7/19, HEARTLAND CAFE Conspicuously missing from the recent spate of books on the 70s New York rock scene is a memoir by Albert Bouchard. As cofounder, drummer, and key songwriter in Blue Oyster Cult, he must have seen it all, from street-level club life to stadium-size excess, and he seems to have retained his literate, snarky rock sensibility. Beach Party (Cellsum) is the newest release from his long-running project the Brain Surgeons, which after the death in 2001 of guitarist Billy Hilfiger (brother of designer Tommy) is now a trio, with music writer Deborah Frost (Bouchard's wife) and David Hirschberg trading off on guitar and bass. Six albums along, it's probably past time to stop holding Bouchard's current band up to the old one, but if they can't resist revisiting "The Red and the Black" or "Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein's Castle" I see no reason to apologize for the comparison. The Surgeons share a lot of BOC's best qualities (wit, power, melodic inventiveness) and are probably doomed to be similarly underappreciated--they're too rock for the eggheads and too smart-ass for the gearheads. ENGLISH SOFTHEARTS 7/19, FIRESIDE BOWL Still (after six years) too often a footnote when they ought to be a headline, the English Softhearts start out at pop punk but with every song branch off in weird and promising directions. Their fourth album, Double Platinum (The Magic Spot), is the goofiest and most interesting effort yet, a silly-brilliant batch of four-on-the-floor new wave skewed by the loopy Residents-ish sensibility that showed up on their previous release, 1999's Blue Oyster Quilt. Nerves headline. MAGIC MAGICIANS 7/21, BOTTOM LOUNGE The economic benefits of being a rock duo must be tempting: the take gets divided only two ways, you only need one motel room, and if you don't have too much gear you can use a car as your van. (Bass players and rhythm guitarists are expected to unveil their alternate budget proposal shortly.) This duo began as a side project for guitarist-singer John Atkins (before 764-HERO broke up), who seems largely responsible for the scratchy, brainy version of the blues they play. But drummer Joe Plummer (from the Black Heart Procession) adds the offbeat sense of beat that lifts their new album, Magic Magicians (Suicide Squeeze), just above the generic--especially on "Mt. Decade," which won me over with its stumbling scrawny-boy soul. EELS 7/23, METRO The Dreamworks label is so big and dumb that it really may not know what it has in Mark Oliver Everett, known to friends and fans as E. A one-man band who isn't afraid to ask for help (recording and touring with some cronies as the loose aggregate the Eels), he's that rare biting and bitter social commentator who's also human and touching and actually funny. (The title of his newest album, Shootenanny!, he says, is his proposed "edgy" synonym for "shooting spree.") Death and despair, loneliness and loserdom find their place in his wonky pop as Everett pronounces his mordant benediction over it all, a reluctant-hipster Jesus among the zit-faced, McJob-holding lepers. ILYA 7/24, FIRESIDE BOWL Though some have observed the influence of Portishead in this San Diego band's mournful electronic flourishes, there's something far older going on: the simple, dour male-and-female counterpoint melodies on their debut, Poise Is the Greater Architect (Second Nature Recordings), are positively medieval, and sepia-toned piano gives down-tempo numbers like "I Want to Know" a fin de siecle ghostliness. That's the essence of all things gothic: a finely honed nostalgia for some past dystopia no more (and no less) fictional than the utopia others seek in the future--which means that this kind of dark-romantic mood music is no less (and no more) relevant now than it ever was. But Ilya's effete swooning functions as a ploy to lower the listener's guard: there's an angry industrial pulse underneath, and sometimes it surges upward.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Hope North.