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Local Record Roundup

One of the most enduring and encouraging traits of Chicago's music scene is its self-sufficiency. I didn't consider this until after I'd picked out what I thought were the eight most noteworthy recent releases by local artists but only one of them is on a label that isn't based here. Furthermore, from veteran Drag City to newcomer Boxmedia, most of these labels have persistently demonstrated more concern with releasing interesting music than with positioning themselves as an attractive package for some national player to scoop up.

ARI BROWN Venus (Delmark) Venus is only reedist Ari Brown's second album as a leader, but he's spent decades as a favored sideman to greats like Elvin Jones, Lester Bowie, and Kahil El'Zabar--and his vast experience adapting to disparate settings shows. Several of the original tunes, which range from burnished ballads to prickly freebop, are imagined from the perspectives of Brown's heroes ("Trane's Example," "Roscoe," "Rahsaan in the Serengeti") but his full, lusty tone remains true to itself, and he never lapses into dull mimicry. And when he works from somewhere closer to home--as on the Latin-tinged title track, dedicated to his recently deceased girlfriend--he reveals the cavernous depth of his emotional reserves. His fine quartet features his brother Kirk on piano, Yosef Ben Israel on bass, and Avreeayl Ra on drums.

DEVIL IN A WOODPILE Devil in a Woodpile (Bloodshot) The heartfelt old-timey racket this acoustic trio rattles out every Tuesday at the Hideout is uniquely suited to the bar's juke-joint feel, and I can certainly see how, with a lungful of secondhand smoke and a couple beers down the gullet, I might be compelled to tap a toe. But like a lot of other things that lose their charm when the lights go on and the booze wears off, on record Devil in a Woodpile's blues-and-country revivalism sounds like it would be more at home in Disney World than a dingy watering hole. Their technical skills are nothing to sneeze at, but by the time washboard maestro Rick "Cookin'" Sherry starts hamming his way through the Ray Charles classic "I Got a Woman," you'll begin to think Leon Redbone is the real deal.

EDITH FROST Telescopic (Drag City) On her second album, produced by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux, Edith Frost has replaced the acoustic gentility of her previous recordings with electric gentility, her rootsy melancholia with fuzzed-out psychedelia. But her beautifully understated serpentine melodies remain a constant, and the backup--Rian Murphy, Ryan Hembrey, Amy Domingues, Jean Cook, and Jason Quick, on drums, bass, guitar, and a lot of violin--still caresses her siren's croon rather than shaping it. Although it would be nice to hear her try a tempo other than mid, Frost obviously has that rare desire to transform herself from within and the even rarer ability to pull it off.

JOY POPPERS The Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower (Ipecac) Original ain't the word for the vision of head Joy Popper Thomas Szidon, but there aren't many who could so imaginatively assemble and execute the lush bounty of pop flattery that he and drummer Jason Batchko do on their second self-released album. They cop from the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and XTC shamelessly but not slavishly--the sheer density of the twisted melodies, rich vocal harmonies, and compact guitar-bass-drum arrangements effectively blurs the plagiarisms. After Robbie Fulks's Let's Kill Saturday Night and Liz Phair's Whitechocolatespaceegg, this might be the best pure pop album to come out of Chicago this year--though there's not much competition.

DAMON SHORT-PAUL SCEA QUARTET Removable Media (Southport) Years before the north-side free-jazz scene exploded, drummer and composer Damon Short was fronting postbop bands that consistently pushed boundaries within tightly controlled settings. On Removable Media, with cool-burn intensity and impressive restraint Short, reedist Paul Scea, bass trumpeter Ryan Shultz, and double bassist Noel Kupersmith sketch loose melodic contours around wide-open spaces in a way that recalls Archie Shepp's legendary New York Contemporary Five. Although Short's rarely acknowledged amid today's bluster of activity, this recording proves he's still a vital piece of the Chicago jazz puzzle.

SPOOL Spool (Newdog) Aluminum Group guitarist John Ridenour and San Francisco electronica artist Jhno--who contributed some synthscapes and rhythm programming to the Aluminum Group's recent Plano--attempt to fuse live rhythm tracks with soft-focus drum 'n' bass and ambient drift. To the pair's credit, the results don't sound like yet more nth generation LTJ Bukem fluff, but the swirling mix of jazzy guitar chords, pastel synth washes, and the occasional overripe melody ultimately works best as an alternative to NyQuil.

TOWN AND COUNTRY Town and Country (Boxmedia) This new quartet purveys a hushed, homespun minimalism, transforming a potentially stiff academic form into something warm, charming, and almost folksy. Jim Dorling's droning harmonium, Ben Vida's pretty acoustic guitar arpeggios and soft trumpet peals, and Liz Payne and Josh Abrams's hydroplaning arco bass lines and pizz plucks flow like molasses from one modest melodic conceit to another--usually one line at a time, so it's easy to drift off and find yourself in a surprising new place when you return. Town and Country have broadened their instrumentation considerably since this recording was made a year ago, adding celesta and accordion and getting more sounds out of their old axes, but even at this nascent stage their lovely music sounds impressively focused.

YOU FANTASTIC! Homesickness (Skin Graft) Tim Garrigan, Darin Gray, and Thymme Jones, vets of patience-trying combos like Dazzling Killmen, Brise-Glace, Cheer-Accident, and Yona-Kit, continue to toy with expectations on their second LP as You Fantastic! At their core the songs are knotty little grooves that remind me of This Heat's martial repetition, but the trio forces the kernels to mutate into all sorts of weird shapes. The album's opener, "Friendless," is a somber but pretty elegy loaded up with horns; "Subtraction" is a ferocious, distorted grind; "Cicero's" is cliff-top start-stop chaos; "Chronic" is Miles Davis dice and splice. And any potential blank spaces on the 70-minute CD have been chinked up with weird environmental sounds ranging from practice-tape excerpts to ambient drones. The album grates by design, but when the trio finally breaks into stride the thrill is just that much greater.

Postscript

What's wrong with the music industry, part 1: Last weekend at the Lincoln Park Dr. Wax while the Marvin Gaye classic "Sexual Healing" was playing, an urban marketing rep for Sony's independent-distribution arm, RED, was heard to ask, "Is this Jamiroquai?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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