Sound Checks

Old 97's
Sunday, Jan. 17; the Duck Room

If you decide to check out the Old 97's, you better make sure you're able to slam-dance and do the Texas two-step with equal fervor. Part Mekons-esque punk and part Kinky Friedman country clowns, the Old 97's bring a refreshing and boisterous energy to the often languid country-rock genre. The Dallas-based quartet is touring in support of its most recent release -- almost a year old at this point -- Too Far to Care (Elektra), which scored big after the irresistible single "Timebomb" was featured in the movie Clay Pigeons.

Unlike other alt-country acts such as Son Volt and the Bottle Rockets, the Old 97's inject standard broken-heart country anthems with a full dose of Texas adrenaline, without getting too full of themselves or moving too far from their country roots. Formed in 1993, the band got its start on Chicago alt-country stalwart Bloodshot Records before jumping to the more monied pastures of a major label. They're held together by singer-guitarist Rhett Miller's cathartic vocals and frenzied guitar twang; he's capable of both touching sentimentality and rip-roaring, four-on-the-floor good-time music without pretense or faux-twangy posturing. (MH)

Brokeback and the
Chicago Underground Duo
Wednesday, Jan. 13; the Rocket Bar

Much has been written about the community of freethinking musicians creating in Chicago these days. Artists like Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, Isotope 217, Jim O'Rourke and others are exploring the gray areas where genres overlap, making their examinations not with the deliberate scholarship of music theoreticians but as curious and freethinking architects unconcerned with dictatorial structures.

Brokeback is the project of Douglas McCombs, best known as the bass player in Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day. His only release thus far is a 45 on the Thrill Jockey label, although a full-length is slated to appear later in the year. On the two instrumental songs, McCombs, using bass and guitar, slides a melody under an electron microscope and examines the nooks between the notes. The melody is in there, though you probably couldn't hum it after the record's over. On "A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond," a cover of a Captain Beefheart song from Doc at the Radar Station, McCombs deconstructs -- though that's too harsh a word for his examination -- the song, eyeing the notes, placing them in the proper order, but adjusting the sound of the song by removing the standard Beefheart skewed edges and replacing them with a muffled, thoughtful bass-and-guitar tone.

The Chicago Underground Duo is Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor -- the former a cornetist, the latter a percussionist. Both come from a jazz background but have, in recent years, discovered said gray areas and approach the making of music with a wide-eyed innocence. One could call their music free jazz, but that would scare many away with thoughts of wailing chaos and blustering sax screams. The Duo has more restraint; their 12 Degrees of Freedom (Thrill Jockey) roams from minimalist textures to roaming travelogues and concerns itself as much with the space between the sounds as with the sounds themselves. For those who love the Thrill Jockey and Drag City labels and need an extra push, Mazurek has appeared on records by Tortoise (whose Jeff Parker guests on the Duo's record), Gastr del Sol, Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake, Loren MazzaCane Connors and Jim O'Rourke.

The evening promises to be a quiet excursion -- don't expect much 4/4 rhythm -- but for those curious about the new directions of Chicago music, an essential evening of listening. (RR)

Contributors: Matthew Hilburn, Randall Roberts

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