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HANDSOME FAMILY 12/8, SCHUBAS It's getting close to that time of year when critics compulsively organize the year's output into best-of lists, so back I go to the Handsome Family's fourth album, In the Air (Carrot Top), released late last winter. There's no question that it's one of the best records of 2000; the unresolved issue in my mind is whether it's as good as the duo's gut-wrenching 1998 album, Through the Trees. I can't persuade myself that it is: In the Air doesn't have the overall cohesion and consistency of Through the Trees, where the emotional punches never even let you catch a breath, and a couple of cuts ("A Beautiful Thing," about the urge to murder, and "My Beautiful Bride," as in "I laid to rest my...") revisit territory the duo has explored with greater subtlety in the past. But at least four songs--"The Sad Milkman," which has already been covered by Sally Timms, the title track, the playfully apocalyptic "When That Helicopter Comes," and the bone-chilling "Lenore"--are as affecting in their precision and tiny grandeur as anything on Through the Trees, and when you do actually go looking for someone--anyone--else who fuses sound and narrative on the same level, these complaints seem pretty minor. GRANT LANGSTON 12/8, UNCOMMON GROUND Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Grant Langston seems to realize there are an awful lot of guys like him out there trying to get a leg up, so he's put some real effort into the gimmickry. His current tour, in support of his All This and Pecan Pie (MSG), is funded by fans who bought shares; stockholders (and anyone else) can track his progress on his Web site, www.grantlangston.com, via photos, tour diaries, and streaming video courtesy of the documentary film crew in tow. Based on the album, this isn't an investment I'd recommend: in skin-deep country-rock and pop songs like "Ugly Women" ("She was friendly / In the way that only ugly women seem to be / She was just being nice to herself / By being nice to me") and "The Real Man" ("You tell me you're tired...of wine and dine / When all you want is a good hard fuck / Well, sister you're in luck") Langston advertises himself with all the charm and likability of post-Darryl Hannah Jackson Browne. LOVE KIT 12/8, BEAT KITCHEN With one foot in giddy, unpretentious fizz pop and the other in a stream of mildly dark psychedelia, this local quartet has hit a nice lurching stride on its third album, The September Heads (Ginger). An attempt at hard-rock-hip-hop on "Tool & Die," joke or not, is entirely disposable, but the rest of the record--with its pretty out-of-time jangle, chiming guitars layered like an 80s haircut, and even the occasional Rain Parade-ish sweep and build--gets stickier and stickier with repeated listens. The cute pop of "Jolly Ghost" or "Pictures of the Above" should make them a fave at NME, but if they made a whole album that sounded like "Here Comes the Moon" or "Sterling," they could play Terrastock. Here's hoping they don't get stuck between niches. VORTIS 12/8, EMPTY BOTTLE Earlier this year Sun-Times rock critic and Lester Bangs biographer Jim DeRogatis, who drummed in several bands in his youth, got back behind the kit to anchor a Bangs tribute band at the Empty Bottle. He apparently enjoyed his return to the stage so much that he's formed a new group to play original music. The four-piece, Vortis, is fronted by Purdue political science professor and photo critic Michael Weinstein, whose Kaczynski-esque attitudes toward cybertechnology are reflected in the lyrics--some of which are posted at the band's bare-bones Web site, www.angelfire.com/indie/vortis. Legendary protopunks the Dictators headline. RKAHIL EL'ZABAR'S RITUAL TRIO WITH PHAROAH SANDERS 12/9, HOTHOUSE Saxist Pharoah Sanders first distinguished himself as sorcerer's apprentice in John Coltrane's band in the mid-60s--his playing seemed to give the master renewed energy. After Coltrane's death, Sanders made remarkable contributions to some of Alice Coltrane's recordings, and released a series of haunting and visionary solo records on Impulse--including Karma, Jewels of Thought, and Black Unity--that for the last several years have sent ripples through the new audience for old free jazz. His career took a somewhat conservative turn in the 70s and 80s, but the rejuvenation of interest seems to have encouraged his forays back into freer territory--including the recent Spirits (Meta), a live trio date with Chicago percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, and Africa N'da Blues (Delmark), on which he joins Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio in exploring the connections between jazz, blues, and African and Latin sounds. He'll perform here with that group, which is rounded out by bassist Malachi Favors and reedist Ari Brown. COC 12/11, HOUSE OF BLUES My Van Halen-worshiping junior high guitar buddy back in rural Virginia had all sorts of choice things to say about how punk bands were just metal bands that couldn't play--and COC, then known as Corrosion of Conformity, from (relatively) nearby North Carolina, were one of the first bands to prove him right, letting their burgeoning chops lead them into grunge metal right around the time it was most fashionable to be there. Their latest, America's Volume Dealer (Sanctuary), isn't boat-rocking stuff, but it's an absolutely solid example of the type--more or less the album Alice in Chains should have made next. And for the record, I think those post-Allman southern guitar licks are a nice touch in this kind of thing, which tends to deregionalize itself. OCTANT 12/12, SCHUBAS Octant, the duo of Matt Steinke and Tassy Zimmerman, started in Seattle, where they recorded their second album, Car Alarms and Crickets (Up), but recently relocated to Chicago. Their intricate machine-generated pop, flawless and slick as an ice sculpture, benefits from a strong streak of whimsy: Steinke makes most of the instruments himself, including light-sensitive samplers, an "electrified stringboard," a random tone generator housed in a bowling ball, and a robotic drum kit that plays itself. I'd file them somewhere between Stereolab at their kitschiest and Gary Numan. Here, in an odd contrast, they open for the Black Heart Procession, whose doleful drone originates in a messy organic angst.

--Monica Kendrick

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

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