Sound Checks

Number One Cup with Ring, Cicada and Glory for Champions
Thursday, Dec. 17; Cicero's

These days Chicago is teeming with strange, clever guitar-pop bands, Number One Cup being perhaps the most interesting of the lot. They describe their sound as well as I could in their list of "thanks (for inspiration by example)" section of the liner notes: Among others, they thank Red Red Meat, Verbena, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Girls Against Boys, the Fall, My Bloody Valentine, Television and Mission of Burma. And if you toss in the voice of Michael Lenzi, which sounds at times like a ringer for that of the Cure's Robert Smith (yeah, they'd probably hate the comparison, but it's true), you could probably wander into the mental ballpark where the music of Number One Cup exists.

The band's recent album People People Why Are We Fighting? (Flydaddy) is a curious success, one on which the players seem to try really hard at times to make rougher guitar rock than that found on previous releases -- the guitars are more distorted and extended -- only to find themselves making pop that's catchier and bouncier than ever. Guitars wrestle with synths and wrangle with an occasional detour into Cars country; feedback seeps out of sustained melodies. The result is music that walks the line between pop and rock, occasionally stumbling from one side to the other, all peppered with feedback and energy. Number One Cup's music has yet to floor me the way it has many others, but I recommend the band nonetheless.

Soul Coughing, Marcy Playground, Less than Jake, Dishwalla and Finger 11
Thursday, Dec. 17; Mississippi Nights

It's somewhat baffling that these five bands are performing all on one evening as part of 105.7 The Point's "Ho Ho Show" when any of them could pack the place on their own. Once you get over the shock of it, the next question is why: Why not do a two-night celebration and ask each band to perform an entire set rather than simply loading in, playing recent hits plus a few extras, then shuttling off so the next band can do the same? In reality, though, the very existence of this show is as important as the performances (or lack thereof); it illustrates to the consumer that the station wields enough clout in the industry to demand a little set from a big-name band. The station (and its audience) wins; the bands ... well, they need the airplay on the station, so they kinda have to play.

That said, a couple of commercial rock's best bands, Marcy Playground and Soul Coughing, are playing. Marcy Playground's infectious "Sex and Candy," with its T. Rex-bravado strum and its soft-loud-soft approach to tension, is only one song on a self-titled debut that's bursting with harmless but heavenly pop. Soul Coughing is often compared to the Talking Heads, though I don't hear it; what I hear is an ex-Knitting Factory doorman weaving words in and out of funky, clever riffs, along with a genuine sense of exploratory wonder (in the context of commercial alternative radio, of course). The result is often a tad too much for me -- too many words peppered with a smirk -- but much more interesting than the latest ska-punk band that inevitably follows them on the station.

-- Randall Roberts

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