Sound Checks

'N Sync
Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 9 & 10;
American Theatre

My niece likes them and so do all her little girlfriends, and that's all that matters to the Ford-like factory that churns out male teen-throb groups. Just as the Model T had identifiable characteristics, so shall ye know these groups by their generic sameness: youth, NAMBLA-approved handsomeness, vapid lyrics, a requisite fan club and a big desire to be way cool. Oh, and let's not forget the ability to sell a jillion records for approximately two years or so before a hasty disappearance into the nearest music-industry wormhole, never to be mentioned again except on Jeopardy! We'll see them in rehab, the pages of Playgirl or perhaps some freaky combination thereof.

'N Sync (you know ... Chris! JC! Joey! Justin! Lance!) are milking it in St. Louis for two nights. Armageddon-like hysteria will accompany their arrival, especially in light of their recent smashes "Tearing Up My Heart" and "God Must Have Spent (A Little More Time on You)." The requisite holiday album, Home for Christmas (RCA), has dropped, they're all over TV and MTV in heavy rotation, and big brother Disney had them on the Disney Channel for an 'N Sync in Concert special. The machine is in overdrive.

One strange footnote: Although they're now ridiculously huge in the States, they had to build up props overseas first -- particularly in Germany, where the pop-soul hit "I Want You Back" drove European teens out of their freakin' skulls.

For those of you who miss the chance to fall in love with 'N Sync live, they'll be back in April '99, so don't worry. (DI)

Varnaline
Thursday, Dec. 10; Side Door

Country music. If you disassociate the two words from one another -- tear them apart, if that's possible -- and think about the country separate from the music, a new definition is possible that's based less on the American meaning of "music created in and around Nashville" and more around the idea of "music made in the country." In 1998, we've got electricity (!), and the idea that making music surrounded by a rural landscape no longer necessitates sitting on the porch with banjos and guitars.

Varnaline seem to make music in the country; at least they hang out there more than the urbanites who feign a twang and roll their mountain bikes through the woods. The music they make is song-based, with electric guitars, bass, drums, an occasional mellotron, pump organ, trombone and glockenspiel, and it's prettier than the music most guys are able to make. Rising from the remains of the wonderful Space Needle, Varnaline shares few external similarities with that band; where Space Needle was drenched in feedback, with marvelous melodies struggling to peek through the murk, Varnaline's melodies are the songs, and when guitarist/vocalist Anders Parkers sings them, he does so openly, sans irony or disdain. They touch on ideas that overlap with those of Bob Mould (for whom they opened a few months ago at Mississippi Nights) and Son Volt. Varnaline's songs are a bit hazier, a tad more withdrawn and faint. But they're equally powerful. (RR)

Lucinda Williams
Thursday, Dec. 10; Blue Note
(Columbia, Mo.)

A year-and-a-half ago Lucinda Williams played the Big Muddy Festival down on the Landing. Along with Beatle Bob, I finagled the introduction slot, then sweated it out as the band tuned and sound-checked and tuned and waited. A thousand people or so had moved in close to the stage. Lucinda had disappeared. Five minutes before she was to go on, I had seen her in back of the risers, flipping through a thick binder of laminated lyrics, pulling songs, sticking them back in, twirling her yellow hair, looking skittish as a doe at the start of hunting season. Her road manager told her the band was ready. She said she had to go to the bathroom. The manager looked at her, then looked at the Johnny-on-the-Spots. Lucinda said no way and headed out of the lot, toward the street. She slipped into a corner bar. Bad move, I thought. Fifteen minutes later her manager found her, and the two walked back. Lucinda grabbed the crib sheets to songs she's been singing for years, then walked onstage.

Her set was rocky but honest, with vulnerability and strength mixed together in songs as economical and alive as drops of blood. For a record six years and four producers in the making, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) feels absolutely seamless and firsthand, unfettered by perfectionism, though it is this year's perfect album. Daughter of a poet, Williams evokes a sense of place drenched with memories and emotions, a lived-in and living pulse. Juke joints, kitchens, suicide bridges, telephone-pole roads, a bedroom where a woman touches herself in ecstasy. The sounds alone -- bubbling electric guitars, a silvery bottleneck blues slide, impossibly melancholy drums -- and Williams' voice -- close-miked to find the truth in every breath, slur and crack -- tell their own stories. No touring band could capture the spaciousness of Car Wheels, but with Kenny Vaughan on rhythm guitar -- one of Nashville's most imaginative pickers -- Richard "Hombre" Price on bass, Fran Breen on drums and guitarist John Jackson (previously of Bob Dylan's band) working with her, Lucinda Williams is capable of singular magic. (RK)

Contributors: Dunkor Imani, Roy Kasten, Randall Roberts

 
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