Sound Checks

U.S. Maple with Lustre Kings and Sweep the Leg Johnny
Friday, April 2; Rocket Bar

It doesn't take a genius to make a mess of rock. You can be an idiot and make it work, too! All you do is let your fingers slobber all over the fretboard, puke while you're singing, grunt a bit and stutter around the drumbeat. Oh, and wear leather. But it takes a goddamn MacGyver to fool us into thinking such antics are cerebral, that the entirety is completely intentional, that the backwoods idiocy is post-something-or-other. Usually you can tell the hedgehogs from the foxes from the look on their faces: One will look frightened, tentative, drunk (or all three) and clueless; the other will either have a shit-eating grin on his/her face, a studied, thousand-mile stare, or a labored quasi-dumbness that you can spot a mile away, all intended to impress in us the idea that he/she is concentrating really, really hard on the rock music.

U.S. Maple are baffling because they sit somewhere in the middle of the equation: They seem like they can't control their guitars to save their soul, that the music is in control, that all they're doing is failing miserably. They lack the requisite snobbery or shit-eating grin that accompanies the music of Visionary Artists, but something smart's going on, quite obviously. They just fuck up rock the same way Captain Beefheart fucked up the blues; out of both boredom and curiosity, they pluck their guitars while king-freak vocalist Al Johnson awkwardly stands on stage, mic in hand, doing his best Elvis-cum-Yow awkward stutter-step dance ritual. Freak show? Yeah. Genius? Not being one myself, it's tough to say. Idiocy? Duh. Worthy? Sure. (RR)

Elliott Smith with Junior High
Wednesday, April 7; Club Karma

I'm trying to imagine Elliott Smith performing live in a crowded bar, and my impressions are turning ugly. All you drunken blabbermouths will perform your usual drunken blabbermouth stunts, shrieking at each other from across the room, clumsily attempting to fornicate -- in short, doing everything but listening to Smith's delicate acoustic arpeggios and fragile, murmuring voice. Smith doesn't strike me as the kind of performer who will silence everyone with his rock-dude charisma: He's a gloomy little guy, of the variety favored by teenage weirdos who fill their algebra notebooks with sketches of Kurt Cobain. Like Cobain, Smith seems to teeter between general malaise and complete self-loathing. He despairs unfashionably. He falls upon the thorns of life! He bleeds! Though I generally mock such Party of Five-ish intensity in a musical entertainer, I can't make fun of Smith. Even though I'm crabby and exhausted after a long day at the office, I'm willing to go out and try to hear him through the din -- a quixotic pursuit, maybe, but that's how much I like him. If you need a better endorsement, word is that Lou Reed makes a point to catch Smith whenever he plays in Manhattan.

So what makes Smith so much better than your typical coffeehouse crybaby? Pick up his last two records, XO (DreamWorks) and Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars), and judge for yourself. Smith writes music with unabashedly pretty surfaces, and he doesn't strain overmuch to conceal his influences (Beatles, mostly, with a dollop of Big Star). He's an able guitar player, but he doesn't feel compelled to indulge in a lot of fancy flourishes. The lyrics are similarly understated, sometimes prosaic: A paradegoer observes a marching band, comments that a drunken trumpet player is "fucking up the simplest lines"; a guy remarks that "God don't make no junk, but it's plain to see he still made me." Shimmering behind a deceptive veneer of inconsequentiality, these songs seduce with a tossed-off, fuck-you grace. All told, it's remarkable. One more thing: You Good Will Hunters out there should know that he doesn't like to play "Miss Misery," so please don't keep screaming it, okay? (RSS)

Contributors: Randall Roberts, René Spencer Saller

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