MARK KOZELEK 12/5, SCHUBAS Much of Mark Kozelek's work outside the Red House Painters has taken the form of homage, whether to AC/DC (whose songs he's rendered melodic on two solo releases) or to John Denver (a tribute album to whom he compiled and played on). This tendency is in full force on Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jetset), the debut from his new band, Sun Kil Moon: "Glenn Tipton" works a discussion of the Judas Priest guitarist (and his bandmate K.K. Downing) into a series of recollections and musings, and "Salvador Sanchez" salutes the titular boxer in its lyrics and (like much of Kozelek's music) Neil Young in its keening guitar. Sun Kil Moon will tour in the spring; for this sold-out show Kozelek plays solo acoustic. MOTION CITY SOUNDTRACK 12/5, BOTTOM LOUNGE This Minneapolis band gets a lot of hoo-ha for being a pop-punk band with a guy who plays Moog and bells, but that's actually not the distinguishing feature of I Am the Movie (Epitaph)--it's the crisp, hand-clappy sense of melody, an almost 80s bounciness, that makes front man Justin Pierre's piercing chirp and fluttery soul trills endearing. Even when they try to go all heavy and angular it just comes out goofy, like Fugazi as covered by the Fixx. THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS 12/5, THE VIC; 12/6 & 7, OLD TOWN SCHOOL Say what you will about the children's-book bandwagon--the two Johns of They Might Be Giants are far, far better equipped to take on such projects than, say, the now tediously matronly Madonna. Their loopy, playful sensibility, which has always been aimed at the weird little kid in most of us, handily trumps flat-footed adult bitterness, no matter how the late Shel Silverstein might be slandered and Dr. Seuss's legacy pooped on by atrocious movies. The Johns' latest release is Bed Bed Bed, a kids' book-and-CD set; they're also celebrating the release of a bonus-laden DVD version of the TMBG documentary Gigantic, and they have a track on an upcoming benefit CD for the Harvey Milk School, the New York high school for gay and lesbian students. The show at the Vic is for "adults," though it's all-ages; the tireless band will also perform two kids' shows a day (all of them sold-out) at the Old Town School over the weekend. HEY MERCEDES 12/7, METRO To write songs for their long-awaited second album, Loses Control (Vagrant), Hey Mercedes retreated from Milwaukee to Spread Eagle, Wisconsin--a town name I'd accuse them of making up if they weren't so doggone earnest. These veterans of the late-90s Champaign act Braid dislike the emo label as much as any other band stuck with it, and I can't say I blame 'em. Let's call this stuff--all polished yearning and crippling self-consciousness redeemed by hooks--what it is: nu-AOR, believed in by its young fans every bit as passionately as the hard-luck make-out music of Journey and the personal-affirmation anthems of Rush were 25 years ago. It's worth remembering that even the bands who wind up on the butt end of rock's oedipal cycle of rebellion are the product of some earlier underground; Hey Mercedes might even have a song as great as "Free Will" or "Wheel in the Sky" in them somewhere. 36 INVISIBLES 12/7, EMPTY BOTTLE These locals, a pair of guitarists and a manic drummer, have released a very promising five-song EP called 4 Songs. Their punk roots show in their chaotic splatter and randomized focus, but some charged-up dueling guitar gives them a fresh, ambitious feel. It sounds like early Blue Oyster Cult, or Skynyrd on speed--like classic rock as a young dinosaur, back when it was fast and clever and still had its teeth. The Means headline; the openers, Galactic Inmate, are the Invisibles plus a bassist. WILLIAM ELLIOTT WHITMORE 12/7, SCHUBAS On his last tour, Whitmore was backed by members of Ten Grand, whose own promising career ended with the untimely death of front man Matt Davis. I mention that because death will probably be on your mind throughout Whitmore's set: on his new Hymns for the Hopeless (Southern) he confronts the hillbilly death ballad all alone, armed only with banjo, harmonica, and his cracked, throaty croak. Whitmore, an Iowa native, is indeed a bona fide hayseed, but that alone doesn't explain his primeval hyperawareness of mortality, and he puts across songs like "Cold and Dead," "Pine Box," "From the Cell Door to the Gallows," and "Burn My Body" without a shred of camp or comforting pop distance. Maybe death does have a sense of irony, but I've never heard of the reaper ever being fended off by a smirk or a sophisticated arrangement. WATERBOYS 12/9, PARK WEST The Waterboys' ninth album, Universal Hall (Minty Fresh), is named for the magnificent arts building at the Findhorn spiritual community in northeastern Scotland, where leader Mike Scott and his cohorts holed up to record it. No doubt the romantic atmosphere nourished Scott's utterly uncynical Celtic mysticism, which soars like a seagull over the pervading ancientness (felt most strongly in "Peace of Iona" and "I've Lived Here Before"). But what really rejuvenates the group is the return of fiddler Steve Wickham, who'd last played with them in 1990--his liquid fire brings substance to even the flattest and corniest of Scott's pronouncements.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Strong.