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Mastodon perform during Day 1 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 18, 2009, in Indio, Calif.
Spring is here. I can tell by the fact that there are too many shows coming to town. Particularly on Tuesday and Wednesday. For example, while I'd love to see Mastodon at 9:30 Tuesday, I gotta go see the Damned because I'll get another chance to see Mastodon sooner. And if neither was playing, I'd be thrilled to check out the Dexateens. And then there's Wednesday. I still don't know what I'm going to do Wednesday.
Animal Collective and Grouper, Monday at Nightclub 9:30 … In the past few years, Animal Collective has become one of the most intriguing, hipster-approved bands around. After its beginnings as an ambient drone noise band, the Collective has expanded its tribal sound toward psychedelic freak-folk, and it is absurdly beautiful, powerful music. At times it's like Brian Wilson only crazier. At times it's reminiscent of The Residents. And then everything in between. “Feels” first took the band to that oddly infectious territory, "Strawberry Jam" gave it more of a pop sound and “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is a psychedelic dance party. Open your ears and open your mind and if you don't feel it, you're shutting yourself off to great experiences. The ambient one-woman post-rock band Grouper also makes this show a must-see (if you have tickets or connections or luck – otherwise, sorry, it’s sold out, sold out a long time ago). Liz Harris’ spooky, ethereal and surreal sounds are based on her acoustic, often avant garde guitar plucking and her quiet, hazy vocals. The minor key melodies are pretty despite a suspenseful nightmare quality.
Chris and Thomas, Monday at Iota … Chris and Thomas (Anderson and Hein) are longtime friends and collaborators, but music is a more recent endeavor, one pursued after the L.A.-by-way-of-Liverpool duo ditched their traveling restaurant and cooking show (which sounds pretty rad). Their music is pure folk – a combo of American and British styles – and both men have pretty, sensitive voices and can play a host of instruments.
Mastodon and Kylesa, Tuesday at Nightclub 9:30 ... Like the current wave of heavy metal, Atlanta's Mastodon just keeps getting better and better. The concepts behind their albums seem to be getting more and more convoluted, but who cares? The Moby Dick-inspired “Leviathan” was, well, inspired, thematically. They ably created their own mythology on “Blood Mountain.” But now, “Crack the Skye” finds them telling a mystical sci-fi tale about tsarist Russia? Whatever. Their still the best metal band around. Their blend of post-hardcore and sludgy alt-metal was played to astonishing effect on "Leviathan." Somehow, the band managed to improve on that with more prog and arena rock on "Blood Mountain." “Crack the Skye” may be their most accessible. “Divinations,” for one, sounds like a pop song to me. The guitar melodies are the band’s most intricate, and probably their most catchy. But it’s still too weighty an affair for most. Mastodon plays ear-bleeding music that alternates from fast and hard to dark and foreboding. Another Georgia band, Savannah’s Kylesa, shares the bill. While also a metal band at its core, like most nü-metal gods, Kylesa fuse all sorts of heavy genres and subgenres. Beneath the Sabbathy sludge, they dabble in hardcore punk, stoner rock and speed metal. Intronaut opens.
The Damned, The BellRays and Electric Frankenstein, Tuesday at Black Cat … Though often overlooked, the Damned is as early as it gets with original punk bands still playing today, and as far as British punk, the Damned were overshadowed contemporaries of the Sex Pistols, but they didn't have much to do with politics as they did with traditional rock and roll. While never losing their edge, the Damned proved malleable. After its epic introduction, the seminal outing of the Damned was trumped by its 1979 rebirth, after which it released its greatest work. The band stayed relevant by evolving -- picking up the synthesizer, a marriage to goth -- without losing its identity. Over the years, the band is almost as well known for lineup turnover and reunions as it is for its music, but originals Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible are still in the fold today, and for a 30-year old band, the Damned still offers a better live performance than most acts around. The BellRays play classic-style R&B with smoky jazz highlights and punk rock backbone. They have recorded songs that would fit well in a blaxploitation flick and others ready for skater docs. That combo of soulful Motown passion and MC5/Stooges fury keeps the music unique. Meanwhile, metal- and punk-influenced hard rockers Electric Frankenstein are hit or miss. For every undeniable foot-stomper or head-bobber, there’s a song that’s just too derivative to enjoy.
Dexateens, Tuesday at the Rock and Roll Hotel … The Dexateens’ blend of trad and southern rock styles initially was steeped in punk, but they’ve toned it down a bit in the past few years. Still, while they’ve got more of a garage rock sound these days, they’ve still got balls aplenty, and on stage, they’ll kick up the amps for punk rock fury from time to time, giving a break from their freewheelin’ fun. With the Features and Those Darlins.
Rodriguez, The War on Drugs and Donny Hue and the Colors, Wednesday at the Rock and Roll Hotel … Motor City folk singer Sixto Rodriguez never really established a U.S. following in his late '60s, early '70s prime – maybe because there were too many artists already doing his thing – but hopefully the re-release of his 1970 debut "Cold Fact" will change that. The album, at least, deserves your consideration. While Rodriguez himself too often sounds like he’s aping one of his contemporaries – from Bob Dylan to Nick Drake to Leonard Cohen and more – the music behind him on “Cold Fact” is inspired arranging and playing thanks to some of Motown’s finest producers and musicians. While Rodriguez’s voice may be nothing new to you, there never was folk music quite like this, and the man’s ability to turn a phrase is a unique gift. Like many underground bands these days, Philadelphia's The War on Drugs seems to be taking pieces of classic rock history, running them through the indie rock of the '80s and presenting them as fresh, almost-outsider sounds for the '00s. Though Bob Dylan is the obvious reference point and The Band and much of '70s trad rock seems to be on the group's iPod, it's a more recent sound that the War on Drugs recalls for me. The band seems to be playing something Animal Collective might try if that group wanted to be easier to grasp, or something that might fall into freak-folk territory, but not quite. Opening up is Donny Hue and the Colors, featuring Olivia Mancini and the Housemates’ Ed Donohue (Donny Hue himself, if you didn't figure that out already) and Randy Scope, both Washington Social Club vets. Though sharing Mancini's fun-loving bounce and folksiness, Donny Hue brings more country and experimentation to the stage.
The Thermals, Wednesday at the Black Cat ... Portland's music scene is probably the best of any city on the continent right now, and a few years ago you could have made an argument for http://www.myspace.com/thethermals The Thermals as Portland's it band (maybe even still). They play lo-fi indie rock, but there's a good dose of punk rock inspiration. This is a Portland supergroup of sorts, and their sound is surprising considering the sadcore, twee and folk of some of the groups that formed this one, but when the trio formed, it was just trying to have fun. They do, and so will you, which is the most endearing thing about The Thermals. Their latest release is a little cleaner than their past work -- a little more pop in the punk -- but it's still a strong effort. With the Shaky Hands and Point Juncture WA.
Azita, Wednesday at DC9 ... Singer and multi-instrumentalist Azita Youseffi has long been a fixture in Chicago's underground. She spent her formative years in her parents' native Iran and in the D.C. area, immersing herself in the city's punk scene. But she formed Scissor Girls in Chicago in 1991. That no wave group hearkened the same movement of a decade earlier. Her next group, Bride of No No, sounded similar but maybe heavier and traveling toward art rock. Since then, she's moved into the Windy City's post-rock scene, and she's focused on playing piano, and her solo releases have been far less abrasive. Her latest, "How Will You?" came out in February.
The Shins, Thursday at Nightclub 9:30 ... The Shins, of course, will change your life. They deserve the attention their music's appearance in the movie "Garden State" has earned them as they have perfected a bittersweet and atmospheric pop rock often reminiscent of '60s California pop. "Garden State" helped this "Wincing the Night Away," their third album but first in four years, debut at No. 2 on Billboard, which was unheard of for their label, Sub Pop, but it also signaled that the band is following the footsteps of Decemberists from pleasant indie pop to crossover adult contemporary. Smart adult contemporary, but adult contemporary nonetheless. Again, it's been a while since they've released a record, and they took almost a year off, so hopefully, there'll be some new magic on stage.
Goes Cube, Friday at the Red & the Black ... I always worry about a band this heavy sounding right at DC9 -- punks like the Meatheads and metal bands like Baroness, actually sounded great -- but Goes Cube at the Red and the Black? If the venue can hold the sound, it'll be the stuff of legend. Their blend of punk and metal is as heavey as anything around, lately. When guitarist David Obuchowski's sheds his screaming for actual singing, though, I'm a little bit disappointed, as it sounds too emo. But at least it's a D.C.-style emo and not he sappier sad sack Pacific Northwest version. With Constants, Make Love & War and Drunken Banshees.
Atmosphere, Saturday at 9:30 Club ... Atmosphere's fifth LP, "When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That S*** Gold," found the Minneapolis duo effectively retreating, in sound, to a more minimalist territory and somewhat less effectively extending its themes beyond its MC's biography. The comparatively sparse sound was refreshing and demonstrated that beats and whistles don't make a hip-hop song -- the composition and arrangement, as in all music, is more important than the instrumentation -- and that a skilled rapper doesn't need the window dressing to be effective. While even more refreshing, Slug's venture outside himself for inspiration wasn't quite as poignant. But let's forgive him his occasional pedantry and praise him for finally broadening his focus. The outward anger was missed, but Ant remains one of the best producers in the game.
Etta James and the Roots Band, Saturday at the Birchmere ... Etta James is one of the strongest female R&B, blues and soul vocalists of all time. But she sings like a jazz singer, like a disciple of Billie Holliday. She got her start as a young pup singing gospel, as many of her ilk have, and as far as pop music, she got her break with early R&B and doo wop. But she made her mark in the '60s on Chicago's Chess Records singing bluesy soul. Drug addiction obstructed her career and deepened her voice but never really derailed the former and only made the latter sound more pained and passionate. Now in her 70s, she's one of those icons you need to catch while she's still taking the stage.
Dan Deacon and Ensemble and Future Islands, Sunday at Nightclub 9:30 … Dan Deacon's compositions have a childlike whimsy that at once distracts me from the genius of the music and attracts me to each song as a whole, making it some of the most engaging electronic music I've ever heard. While he seems influenced by the experimental art-punk of the likes of Talking Heads, he owes an equal debt to the cartoon scores of Raymond Scott, much like Soul Coughing did in the '90s. It all makes him a perfect fit in Baltimore's Wham City collective. Much of the music is easy to dance to, but Deacon frequently disrupts his grooves, making a stumbling mess of the dance floor. If you're not a dancer, or not a dancer comfortable with having a wrench thrown into your moves, Deacon's still a somewhat engaging live act -- you never know what wrinkle's next to come -- but it really isn't much to look at. However, he's bringing an ensemble with him this time, which should make for a more interesting visual -- and aural -- experience. A 15-piece helped him debut his latest LP, "Bromst," and the accompanying animation in December. And check out Future Islands' set in support. This North Carolina quartet with Baltimore links is destined for big things. Fans of nü-wave will love this. Others should, too, because it is weirder than most nü-wave, catchier than most nü-wave and better than most nü-wave. It is synth-first electro-rock with a great live beat. Teeth Mountain opens.