MR. T EXPERIENCE 3/13, Riviera Pity the fools who named their dime-a-dozen punk-pop band after a TV actor whose kitsch value faded even faster than his career. Reel Big Fish headlines.

JEFF SHUCK 3/13 & 15, A TASTE OF HEAVEN on clark; 3/14, LORI’S KOOL BEANS; 3/20, Chicago music mart I try to be up front about my biases: Jeff Shuck’s Brightest Coldest Blue (on his own One Room Schoolhouse label) is full of the sort of sensitive, twinkly piano pop that sends me scrambling for the insulin. But I can recognize that it’s beautifully done, and, feeling magnanimous, I’ll concede that it’s the best Elton John record in decades.

RIGO STAR 3/14, MARTYRS’ Congolese guitarist Rigo Star recently told Rhythm Music magazine, “People in the Congo are like Americans. They’re loyal to their own music; they don’t like it to change too much.” That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it, and Star, who has gradually introduced small innovations into the high-spirited soukous and rumba forms of the nation formerly known as Zaire, is nothing if not diplomatic. His new Attention! (IMA)–recorded in Paris, where the world-beat scene makes him feel less constrained–is a well-mannered, upbeat web of complex Afro-pop, incorporating outside influences from Arabic dance music to mellow American jazz. Unfortunately it does exhibit the tendency of any sort of fusion to lose the distinctive tastes of the ingredients. He appears here with countryman and megastar vocalist Pepe Kalle.

THE DAMNED 3/15, House of Blues Captain Sensible, a world-champion bullshitter, claims yet again that this will be the last Damned tour ever. The press release reminds us that the first British punk band to cut a record is now old enough to drink legally in all 50 states; no word on how long ’til the acrimony with former drummer Rat Scabies reaches the age of consent. The lineup currently includes the Captain on guitar, drummer Garrie Dreadful and keyboardist Monty the Moron (both from Captain Sensible’s solo project), original vocalist Dave Vanian, and the glamorous Patricia Morrison (Gun Club, Sisters of Mercy) on bass.

CONSOLIDATED 3/17, METRO This aggressively political trio hasn’t been heard from since its 1994 Business of Punishment. But in the meantime Rage Against the Machine has proved that there is indeed a place for earnest lefty pontification in stadium land (and Chumbawamba that even a passel of dyed-in-the-wool anarchists can belch out a hit as ubiquitous and annoying as “Macarena”). Turns out the Consolidated guys have spent a lot of their hiatus volunteering at places like the Portland Women’s Crisis Line and the Council for Prostitution Alternatives, and they’ve now turned toward feminism with all the fervor of the recently saved. Tunes on their new Dropped (Sol 3) bear self-explanatory titles like “Lesbian Avengers,” “Why Doesn’t He Stop,” and “Pimp Is the World’s Oldest Profession.” I’ve got issues with some of their politics–sure, it’s poetic to compare the ACLU to Operation Rescue, but who’s gonna save your ass when Wal-Mart figures out you said “motherfucker”? But their good intentions sound better over their palatable melange of hip-hop and rock–and it should be really interesting to see how any reasonably insightful commentary on violent male rites of passage goes down in middle-American mosh pits.

TONO-BUNGAY 3/19, Empty Bottle Improv rock isn’t about virtuosity, though some of its practitioners, like Tono-Bungay guitarist Bob Bannister, have it; nor is it about the guaranteed epiphany of the perfect pop song. It’s about taking your chances. This New York trio–the best-kept secret of a city not known for keeping secrets–does its best to forget everything it’s ever done every time it plays, and thus stands a better chance than many of learning something new on the spot. The seven untitled tracks on Tono-Bungay’s first full-length, Wunderkammer (Twisted Village), feature inspired jams, hypnotic, cycling drones, and percussive trick bags flung wide open; they left me with the perversely pleasant vertiginous feeling of a mild fever.

UPPER CRUST 3/19, DOUBLE DOOR Hysterical headlines in the trade rags notwithstanding, the only music-industry crisis I can see is the big sagging buttload of unimaginative riff rock coming from serious young lawyers’ sons who dress like mechanics. If you’re gonna try to push that kind of music in the current environment, you might as well powder your wig, call yourself Jackie Kickassis, Lord Bendover, or the Marquis de Rocque, and write catchy, hard-rockin’ songs about Little Lord Fauntleroy “playin’ with his hard-on / In the formal garden” (from the Upper Crust’s 1995 debut, Let Them Eat Rock). The band’s newest, The Decline and Fall of the Upper Crust (Emperor Norton), is more of the same–catch ’em now before everybody’s doing it. –Monica Kendrick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Upper Crust photo by Kelly Catchings.