VIC CHESNUTT If there's a more harrowing rock song than "Coward," the tune that opens At the Cut (Constellation), the new album by Vic Chesnutt, I haven't heard it. Backed by members of Montreal art-rock juggernauts Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion along with Fugazi's Guy Picciotto—as he is on most of the album—the singer is shadowed by a downright orchestral arrangement. Gradually massing and unmassing electric guitars, violin, and upright bass, punctuated by David Payant's spare but thunderous drumming, convey a powerful mix of dread and despair as Chesnutt's elliptical lyrics, peppered with quotes from novelists Frank Norris and Joseph Roth, allude to the danger of pushing a coward too far. Nothing else on the record quite matches this track for gut-punch impact, but At the Cut is still probably Chesnutt's finest album—better even than a previous effort with these musicians, North Star Deserter (2007), and his classic 1998 collaboration with Lambchop, The Salesman and Bernadette. Lighthearted ditties are usually part of his repertoire too—but not here. From the deceptively uplifting-sounding "Flirted With You All My Life"—an imagined conversation with Death—to the somber solo number "When the Bottom Fell Out," he unflinchingly confronts fear, disappointment, and pain. His eight-member touring band includes most of the musicians from the album, including Picciotto, bassist Thierry Amar, and violinist Jessica Moss. Clare & the Reasons open. 9 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, $20, $18 in advance. —Peter Margasak
STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT Urbanus (Concord) is the second album by vibist Stefon Harris's R & B-leaning ensemble Blackout, but it's a better starting place than the group's 2004 debut, Evolution (Blue Note). The first record failed in wedding contemporary soul to high-level improvisation, foundering on safe middle ground just a few steps from smooth jazz. The new one takes more chances, unabashedly embracing uncut funk, hip-hop, and even go-go rhythms, which gird the bright reading of "Gone" from Porgy and Bess, and while the music still has a commercial gloss, beneath the veneer is a limber hybrid. Alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin contributes some romantic, Vocodered vocals, including on the lovely "For You," which he also sang on Robert Glasper's recent Double Booked (Blue Note); the quintet also includes powerhouse drummer Terreon Gully, bassist Luques Curtis, and pianist Sullivan Fortner. See also Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20. —Peter Margasak
LIONS RAMPANT These Cincinnati-area garage-rock clowns have a refreshing inability to take themselves seriously. Right now their default MySpace pic is an elaborately staged scenario with the three band members dressed as Playboy bunnies, and their most recent blog post promises, "Watch Stuart get beat up!" and delivers with footage of drummer Nate Wagner whaling on front man Stuart MacKenzie onstage. Their music is similarly unserious—scrappy, raggedy-ass rock 'n' roll of the loud-fast-blues variety, spiced up with a heavy dash of punk, intended as an incitement to dance and/or engage in dumb, drunken stunts. Their two self-released EPs, Lions Rampant Play Rock 'n' Roll and Half Women Half Alcohol, are downloadable at thelionsrampant.com, but they have a full-length in the can, the fate of which is currently undecided. Thee Invaders and Son of Cops open. 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $5, $3 in advance. —Miles Raymer
LIUDAS MOCKUNAS, MARTIN BRANDLMAYR Although barely known here, Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockunas has been turning heads in Europe for some time. His malleable, astringent tone works in all sorts of contexts, and he seems to find the perfect approach in each of them. Earlier this year he knocked me out at a concert in Sweden with guitarist Anders Lindsjo and laptopper Jakob Riis, where hard listening was key to the subtle, back-and-forth interaction. In a meeting with Swedish firebreather Mats Gustafsson on The Vilnius Explosion (No Business, 2008) his caustically marbled bleats and cries were the yin to his partner's blowout yang. More recently on Silent Vociferation (No Business) he engages in visceral dialogues with French guitarist Marc Ducret, no less sophisticated for their ferocity. In his Chicago debut he improvises with pianist Jim Baker, bassist Brian Sandstrom, and drummer Steve Hunt.
Vienna's Martin Brandlmayr is one of the most distinctive-sounding drummers on the planet. His space-spreading, stutter-step minimalism holds together, in an abstracted fashion, the twitchy noise of the trio Radian, whose new Chimeric (Thrill Jockey) sounds like a riposte to the first This Heat album. But his recent work in the group Polwechsel emphasizes his pure sound-making skills. I don't think of him as a true improviser, but I'm sure spontaneity will play a part in this rare solo performance.
Mockunas performs at 6 PM in the Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater, and Brandlmayr goes on at 6:45 PM upstairs in Preston Bradley Hall; both sets are part of "European Jazz Meets Chicago," the six-act celebration that kicks off the Umbrella Music Festival. 6 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630. —Peter Margasak
STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT See Thursday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
BLACK HEART PROCESSION As the return to numbered titles might hint, the Black Heart Procession's Six (Temporary Residence) doesn't break new ground: the core duo of Pall Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel cultivate the same dark theatricality that's bolstered an impressive catalog dating back to '98. As it ever was, Jenkins's barbiturate croon creeps along over spooky arrangements out of the seasoned indie rocker's guide to eclectic instrumentation—layers of piano, synth, extra percussion. In terms of complexity Six falls somewhere between the band's earlier and more barren numbered efforts and 2002's ambitious murder-mystery concept album, Amore del Tropico. But new ground is overrated: you want wrist-slitting ambiance, you got wrist-slitting ambiance. Bellini and Poison Arrows open. 9 PM, Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, 312-666-6775 or 866-468-3401, $15, 18+. —Kevin Warwick
ECCENTRIC SOUL REVUE Last seen in a glorious Park West performance in April, the Eccentric Soul Revue—a good old-fashioned package bill that Chicago's Numero Group has put together to showcase just a few of the many performers whose music it has rescued from oblivion and stunningly repackaged for its Eccentric Soul series—is kicking off a brief tour at the new Lincoln Hall before stops in Pontiac, Columbus, D.C., Pittsburgh, New York, and Philly. The lineup's slightly different for each city, featuring performances from acts representative of each town. While I'm jealous New York will get to see Missy Dee perform the early-80s disco rap featured on Numero's triple LP Don't Stop: Recording Tap, Chicago's in for what promise to be stellar performances from Pastor TL Barrett and his choir, who appear on the upcoming Good God! Born Again Funk (available early at these shows); Sharon Clark, featured on Young Disciples, a comp of late-60s East Saint Louis soul that came out of a youth community center; and Chicago native Linda Balintine, who was just 16 when she recorded for Bandit, a south-side label run by the infamous Arrow Brown, subject of the 2005 Reader cover story "The Godfather of King Drive." Headliners from April's revue also return for most shows, including Chicago: Renaldo Domino, the Notations, and Syl Johnson, all backed by JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. 9 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, $30, 18+. —Brian Costello
STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT See Thursday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
AKIRA SAKATA When Japanese reedist Akira Sakata came to the world's attention in the early 70s as a member of the explosive free-jazz trio led by pianist Yosuke Yamashita, his driving, manic energy and exploratory upper-register squalls were hallmarks of his searing improvisational style. By the early 80s, though, after striking out on his own, he'd either lost his way or was hell-bent on trying something radically different—singing Japanese folk songs, making pop-leaning records, getting mixed up with electric bassist and producer Bill Laswell. But happily, in the past half-decade or so Sakata has rediscovered his focus and killer sound. I don't know if former Chicagoan Jim O'Rourke is responsible for this shift, but he's been playing with and producing records for Sakata, enlisting two American colleagues—drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Darin Gray—as his working band, Chikamorachi. On Friendly Pants (Family Vineyard), the first Sakata recording released stateside in decades, the reedist unleashes plenty of sinus-clearing torrents, but his playing also reveals a refreshing compositional logic and lyrical tenderness. O'Rourke stays behind the board, spotlighting what an effective, empathetic trio Chikamorachi has become. Tonight, in his first-ever Chicago performance (part of the Umbrella Music Festival), Sakata is joined by bassist Nate McBride, guitarist Jeff Parker, and drummer John Herndon—essentially Ken Vandermark's Powerhouse Sound without Vandermark. Mike Reed's Loose Assembly (with guest Roscoe Mitchell) and Vox Arcana open. On Sunday (also as part of Umbrella) Sakata performs with Chikamorachi; see separate List item. 9 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401, $15. —Peter Margasak
STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT See Thursday. 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
MOUNT EERIE The one-sheet that came along with Mt. Eerie's recent Wind's Poem—on P.W. Elverum & Sun, the "poem printer/record label/souvenir vendor" run by sole permanent member/painter/recording engineer Phil Elverum, out in Washington's San Juan Islands—is the first I've seen that explicitly lists the album's theme alongside more prosaic information like release date and catalog number. It's stated as "erosion/mortality," which seems about right. Recorded over the span of two years "out behind the house," the songs take scraps of melodies and do all sorts of weird, dark things to them, like stretching them out into slowly modulating drones or dropping them into the midst of a lo-fi black-metal maelstrom. Epic, fascinating, and more than a little scary. The touring group's supposed to include "(among other things) two drummers, some gongs, and a wall of amps." Tara Jane O'Neil and No Kids open. Mount Eerie also plays a free in-store at 1 PM at Reckless Records, 3126 N. Broadway. 7 PM, Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, 773-472-3492 or 866-468-3401, $10. —Miles Raymer
MELISSA ST. PIERRE At some time or other, plenty of modern composers, from John Cage to Christian Wolff, have used prepared piano—that is, piano with various objects laid upon or wedged between the strings and dampers to modify the sound, which is sometimes created by playing the keys and sometimes by striking or plucking strings or other parts. But twentysomething Pittsburgher Melissa St. Pierre has made prepared piano her calling card. Her approach is heavily percussive and obviously meticulous: there's nothing vaguely aleatoric or improvised-sounding on her power-packed debut, Specimens (Table of the Elements/Radium, 2008). She weaves the alien clangs and clanks of her manipulations into propulsive, minimalistic, musical vignettes, with an assist from members of Milwaukee's Collections of Colonies of Bees, who add some electronic skitters and conventional percussion; the results suggest a hyperactive junkyard gamelan. St. Pierre performs solo here, as part of the inaugural weekend of the five-week-long Outer Ear Festival of Sound. After the show she'll conduct a prepared-piano workshop from 4 to 6 PM; tuition is $30, $25 for students and ESS members. See also Monday. 2 PM, Experimental Sound Studio, 5925 N. Ravenswood, 773-769-1069, $10 suggested donation. —Peter Margasak
J. TILLMAN Josh Tillman came onto my radar just last year, after he joined Seattle's Fleet Foxes as a drummer and backing vocalist, adding yet another layer to their stunning harmonies. But since 2005 he's released eight solo albums, each one a sparse, meditative, morose affair typically dominated by Nick Drake-style folk rock—skeletal acoustic guitar, haunted, vibrato-laden vocals, and, sometimes, harmony singing that explains why Robin Pecknold tapped him for the Foxes. For the new Year in the Kingdom (Western Vinyl), Tillman has written more of the same type of songs, but he's given them more elaborate arrangements, with some elegant string parts crafted by Jenna Conrad and his own sporadic contributions on piano, hammer dulcimer, recorder, banjo, and percussion. As beautiful as their overall sound is, over the course of the album there's a lack of rhythmic and melodic variation—he starts nearly every tune with the same kind of phrase. Pearly Gate Music opens. 8 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, $14, $12 in advance. —Peter Margasak
TOPOLOGY, AKIRA SAKATA & CHIKAMORACHI Topology, Joe McPhee noted in his liner notes to his 1981 album of that name, is a form of mathematics that "deals with all conceivable forms, abstract and multidimensional as well as those that can be drawn." That description also pretty much nails the Poughkeepsie-based multi-instrumentalist's extraordinarily inclusive music. His recent playing in totally improvised settings encompasses the full range of conventional and nonconventional technique on a myriad of reed and brass instruments and resonates sympathetically with such disparate accompaniments as the muffled traffic heard through the bar's door on the upcoming live solo LP Alto (Roaratorio) and the engulfing cacophony of nearly a dozen other impassioned improvisers with Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet. But on the records he made during the 70s and 80s for the Swiss Hat Hut labels, he found ways to play just as freely while deeply engaging specific elements of jazz's roots and branches; lusty blues on "Knox," Ayler-esque gospel on "Astral Spirits," and Miles Davis's baleful funk on "Future Retrospective." Those are among the ten tunes that Ken Vandermark has arranged for Topology, a group he's convened to play that Hat Hut-era material; it includes Jeb Bishop, Tim Daisy, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jason Adasiewicz, Josh Berman, Dave Rempis, Ken Kessler, and featured soloist Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and fluegelhorn. Head with Wings opens, Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi (see Saturday) play second. This show is part of the Umbrella Music Festival. See also Monday (under Joe McPhee & Fred Lonberg-Holm). 9 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118, $15 suggested donation. —Bill Meyer
JOE MCPHEE & FRED LONBERG-HOLM See Sunday (under Topology). 8 PM, Bond Chapel, University of Chicago, 1050 E. 59th, 773-702-8670.
MELISSA ST. PIERRE See Sunday. Melissa St. Pierre performs with Technical Drawings, a duo with percussion programmer and electronicist Jesse Stiles. This concert is part of a multidisciplinary series called Collision Theory; the dance duo of Darrell Jones and Kirstie Simson shares the bill. 7:30 PM, Links Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield, 773-281-0824, $12, $10 students, seniors, and unemployed.
HAPTIC WITH LISA SLODKI For a group that was originally conceived as a vehicle for improvisation and live collaboration with invited fourth parties, the local electroacoustic trio Haptic has adapted quite well to more permanent formats. Not only is it hard to tell what's played, what's processed, and what's an environmental field recording on their new album, Trebuchet (Entr'acte), it's really beside the point. The music is in constant flux, so that by the time you think you've identified a sound it's already changed, but it's so marvelously tactile you don't want to let it go; "Four," the disc's third track, feels like a warm blanket woven from wool, radiator hiss, and radio static. This month the Museum of Contemporary Art's 12 x 12 gallery is hosting an installation by Haptic and video artist Lisa Slodki. It consists of looped images, some of which have previously accompanied Haptic in concert, and the sounds of her equipment, which are picked up, amplified and played back into the room on a sound system devised by Haptic. Haptic and Slodki will perform live in the gallery on three successive Tuesdays; tonight they'll also present a talk about the installation at 6 PM. 7 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660. —Bill Meyer
SURFER BLOOD Bands don't often come out of the gate as strong as this group of young Floridians. Their debut album, Astro Coast (due January 19 on Kanine Records), works a nice, tight strip of the musical spectrum that's the shortest possible distance between Brian Eno's perverse-pop phase and the first Weezer record. Front man John Paul Pitts can hit all the high notes but does so with a vaguely British detatchment, and a lot of the record is given over to songs like "Harmonix" that decorate a sparse melodic frame with brilliant unexpected touches, like a melody constructed of plucked guitar harmonics or a lead that splits the difference between surf rock and highlife. But then there are a few that're mostly just giant blasts of supercatchy, densely fuzzy guitar pop, not trying to do anything other than deliver riffs and hooks as crunchtastically as possible. Better hope the dudes aren't dicks, because there are about to be seven billion articles and blog posts about them. Art Brut headlines; Surfer Blood and Frigates open. 9 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, $15, 18+. —Miles Raymer