Sound Checks

Atmosphere, All Natural, Rubberoom,
K-Otix and In Limbo
Thursday, April 15; Gargoyle

If your idea of a live hip-hop show involves a series of men onstage barking, grunting and hollering mindless hooks, you won't be raising the roof to the music these five groups turn out. And if you think it's all about looking good and "keeping it real (gold)," your gear and fronting will be wasted. The groups appearing at Washington University's Gargoyle as part of KWUR Week are some of the finest in independent-label artists; not only that, they all reside in the states of rap purgatory dismissed as the Midwest.

Atmosphere -- Slug (MC), Spawn (MC) and The ANT (producer) -- is from Minneapolis, part of the Rhyme Sayers crew. I've seen these kids kick freestyles longer than most rappers' longest album tracks, with crazy originality and better flow to boot.

All Natural's DJ, Tone B. Nimble, cuts up Jungle Brothers ("Educated Man") and Run DMC ("with a high IQ") on the chorus to "Thinkin' Cap," produced by Common's man No ID. The Chicago duo's other half, Capital D, is a polished composer and recites on the same track, "D's diction be ill and logical like deduction/Words D mention ain't found in dis dimension/When D detect dissension/then D grab de microphone like divine intervention."

Rubberoom, also from Chi-town, includes emcees Metamo and Lumba; you may recall seeing them at Blueberry Hill with DJ Steezo and J-Bird a few weeks ago. They're on some futuristic-horror-flick-theme shit -- the production is hard, layered beats laced with sparse loops by the Isle of Weight.

Micah Nickerson, Damien Randle and Russel Gonzalez combine to form K-Otix, who represent Houston. Their main objective is slapping wack emcees across the back of the head with their lyrics. In "7 MCs Part II," Nickerson and Randle diss the Gucci sunglasses off glamor-rappers and beat-jackers, and they make it pretty clear exactly whom they are ripping apart over Gonzalez's head-bopping beat.

Also performing will be our very own In Limbo, comprising emcees Adverb and Intellect, and St. Louis' premier DJ, B-Money. They don't perform much together, but I can tell you that this is your chance to see St. Louis' finest in hip-hop talent representing with the rest.

Together these emcees and deejays are cracking the warped mirror that reflects negative images of the middle of this country. They have enough energy and passion to wake up this whole decrepit city, plus New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles. (AP)

Sebadoh and Verbena
Saturday, April 17; Karma

Sebadoh's approach to songwriting is schizophrenic. Creative chores are split between Lou Barlow, a popster at heart with folk tendencies, and Jason Lowenstein, a punk with a knack for overindulging in distortion. This incoherent tact has often hamstrung studio sets, but the creative duality translates well to the stage, largely because it affords them a chance to pick and choose from the highlights of a long, sometimes brilliant career.

Their latest offering, The Sebadoh (Sub Pop/Sire), is a typical bipolar work. Imagine it as a buffet. As you pick up your plate, your hunger grows as you gaze at the 15 entrees in front of you. After all, these guys have concocted some spectacularly delicious music, and it's been a while since their last release, Harmacy (Sub Pop) whetted your appetite with its handful of savory tracks.

Unfortunately, like most of Sebadoh's previous outings, except for III (Homestead), perhaps, the pickings are very hit-and-miss and are sure to leave your stomach growling. If only Barlow would cook up all the songs on a Sebadoh album, their releases wouldn't be the disappointing listens they invariably are.

His songs, if they were buffet food, would be like those dainty little baby quiches -- they're good, but there are never enough to fill you up. Barlow shows his best Nick Drake impersonation on most of his tracks, especially on "Tree" and "Love Is Stronger," and the two most groovin' tracks, "Colorblind" and "Thrive," are also penned by Barlow. The Lowenstein songs (and the one tune whipped up by new drummer Russ Pollard), on the other hand, would be more like those forlorn meatballs sitting covered in gravy skin -- plenty to go around but off-putting to all but those with the heartiest of appetites. Despite these recurring problems, a Sebadoh show is delectable and, yes, filling thanks largely to the smorgasbord of great songs dating back to 1989. (MH)

Verbena will open the show. The Birmingham, Ala., band's 1997 album Souls for Sale (Merge) swallowed whole arena rock, indie rock and punk rock until it all melted into one mass of, well, rock. You could hear traces of X, Boston, Wire, Nirvana and Sabbath, but it never sounded like any of them. It just sounded -- and still does -- like wide-awake, blaring, distorted electric-guitar rock with a love of hard melody and warm harmony. Their forthcoming Into the Pink (Capitol), the band's major-label debut, is partly the product of striking the affections of one Dave Grohl, he of the Foo Fighters/Nirvana, who also fell in love with Souls for Sale, asked them to tour with his band and ended up both rallying for them with his label and producing Into the Pink. And you can hear his hand in the production, perhaps a bit too much. Guitars sound deeper, as if they're tuned lower, and there's an overall, well, compressed, major-label feel to the record that, on initial listens, muddies the vibe. The wonderful give-and-take harmony of guitarist/vocalist Scott Bondy and bassist/vocalist Anne Marie Griffin still shines, though, and Bondy's voice, when he stretches it, sounds a lot like Kurt Cobain's -- not a bad thing at all, though it didn't before. It's tempting to be disappointed with the record. But the truth is, I didn't like Souls for Sale all that much at first, and then something clicked in my ears and it all made perfect sense. Here's hoping my hesitations are replaced with a similar transcendence. (RR)

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