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PHIL LEE 5/5, FITZGERALD'S North Carolina native Phil Lee moved to New York to play music in the early 70s, then went to California, where he worked with Jack Nitzsche on movie sound tracks and drove a truck for Neil Young. This he parlayed into a full-time trucking career--until about a decade later, when he was asked to augment the 1993 lineup of the Flying Burrito Brothers. In 1995 he moved to Nashville, the dead end where all country roads lead, and he and producer Richard Bennett began work on his debut album, The Mighty King of Love, which has just been issued on Shanachie. While the twangy, shambling roots-rock sound of the record is undistinguished, as a front man Lee is arresting: his thin, crackly, longing voice is the perfect vehicle for the vicious, bitter, and hilarious tunes like "She Ran Out of Give (Before I Ran Out of Take)," the Cajun-inspired "Les Debris, Ils Sont Blancs," or my favorite, "Blueprint for Disaster": "Y'take one blonde Telecaster, one blonde from Des Moines / Y'gotcha blueprint for disaster." SWEEP THE LEG JOHNNY, ALKALINE TRIO 5/6, EMPTY BOTTLE These two bands have a growing local following based mostly on their live shows, which they've tried to capture on recent albums. Sweep the Leg Johnny's new Sto Cazzo! (Southern) is a worthy addition to the Chicago crunch-rock lineage. Its most distinguishing feature is front man Steven Sostak's sax playing, which returns the instrument to its obvious but rarely held rank as a weapon of wank nearly equal to the guitar: eruptions and fritters rise up, sometimes with and sometimes against the riffs emanating from the rest of the band, like sudden fight-or-flight surges. The Alkaline Trio bet the farm on songwriting on their new Maybe I'll Catch Fire (Asian Man): obligatory third-generation Husker Du and Replacements nods provide what fuel doesn't come from that peculiar quality of youth by which wallowing in the misery of thwarted love provides more energy than it drains. DRAPES 5/8, EMPTY BOTTLE This up-and-coming local trio, featuring producer Kevin McDonough and Polish-born artist Andrea Jablonski, sent me a very promising demo for a forthcoming album. It's an invigorating shot of swigging, swaggering, mostly high-speed blues punk, played with reckless virtuosity. They've got a way with a groove that many more experienced bands of this sort would kill for--though McDonough's affectless singing doesn't quite match the instrumental ferocity. They share the bill with Hoodoo Hoedown, the completely-over-the-top swamp-soul outfit led by bullfrog-voiced writer James Porter. KITTIE 5/9, HOUSE OF BLUES The four teenage rock 'n' roll queens in Ontario's Kittie, who've shot straight from the garage into the buzz bin, are understandably annoyed that some people will like them simply because they're cute young thangs who write songs like "Suck" and "Do You Think I'm a Whore." On the other hand, in interviews they also come off as ruthless, precocious professionals who'll take any advantage they can get--and more power to 'em, I say. The fact that they're able to channel slights, sexist and otherwise, into the sort of thick, nasty, guttural metal of the best tracks on their debut, Spit (Artemis), bodes well for them--and the fact that they've been profiled by Guitar World bodes well for the world. I'm also tickled by the irony of the parental warning sticker on the cover. ARMORED SAINT, AMORPHIS 5/10, HOUSE OF BLUES Though they still use the scary monster voice once in a while, it's hard to believe that Finland's Amorphis were ever a death-metal band. Their fourth full-length, Tuonela (Relapse), is elaborate, mostly clean-toned prog-metal nodding to both Scandinavian folk music--respected reedist Sakari Kukko plays flute on one track--and the glory days of Deep Purple. There are Hawkwind-ish keyboards, and there's even a goddamn sitar, which sounds a lot better in the context of the mean, chugging "Greed" than it has any right to. On their new Revelation (Metal Blade), headliners Armored Saint--favorites of the LA club circuit in the 80s who were never quite shrill enough to break through to the Priest-worshiping masses--have pretty much picked up where they left off nine years ago, after guitarist Dave Prichard died of leukemia and vocalist John Bush defected to Anthrax. The new recording was prompted by Bush's return; the rest of the lineup is original except for guitarist Jeff Duncan, who joined in 1991. Portugal's Moonspell and Norway's Kovenant open. APPLES IN STEREO, VERSUS 5/11, EMPTY BOTTLE I don't have the sweet tooth a lot of my colleagues seem to; I can't usually get through a triple chocolate raspberry riot without gagging at least a little. So it really depends on my mood whether the Apples in Stereo's third full-length, The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (Spinart), sounds like a scriptural revelation from the dancing candy gods or a revolting bit of sonic cocaine I'd just as soon flush down the toilet. The arrangements sound kind of like ELO on laughing gas trying to cover Sly & the Family Stone while being goosed by the young and perverted Roxy Music. There's no way for this stuff to have no effect--on the right day it could goad even the dourest, most paranoid coiled-spring gun nut into a bout of giggly pillow fighting. Also on the bill are New York indie-pop diehards Versus, whose new CD EP, Shangri-La (Merge), contains three songs called "Shangri-La"--one original, one by the Kinks, and one by ELO--as well as "Out in the Streets," a Barry-Greenwich tune originally done by the Shangri-Las. You bet it's precious and cutesy, but if there was ever a band born to render the acerbic fragility of Ray Davies at his most brilliant--and most English--into 90s American vernacular, it's this one. BLONDE REDHEAD 5/11, METRO Named for a DNA song and once fond of throwing detuned guitars around as if they thought they'd invented them, Blonde Redhead used to get written up (or off) as perfect little unkemptly uniformed little Sonic Youth Youth. But the arch-pop, electronics-driven, near-miss-love-laden understatement of their latest release, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch and Go), suggests that lately the Japanese-Italian New York band has been listening to a lot of Japanese pop, some Stereo Total, and maybe just a hint of emo. Yeah, it's a new direction, but it still doesn't count as an identity, and their undeniable appeal still lies mostly in that unpinpointable familiarity.

--Monica Kendrick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scarlet Page.

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