Jolene 2/23, Schubas This five piece from Charlotte may not be particularly good, but it does demonstrate that the country rock cordoned off under the tag No Depression is nothing new. On their debut, Hell’s Half Acre (Ardent), Jolene, a name swiped from the famous Dolly Parton tune, hitch the twang quotient that marked R.E.M.’s 80s music to the blandness of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s (Toad being, after all, R.E.M. sans personality). Apart from Bill Ladd’s pretty pedal steel playing, Jolene’s country element is marginal. But then again, between bands like Blue Mountain and 66, ruralism exists more through bolo ties and Neil Young riffs than through anything musically substantial. Mike Johnson 2/23, Smart Bar Best known as the bassist in Dinosaur Jr and the man behind the bleak musical scapes on Mark Lanegan’s two solo records, Mike Johnson also has a couple of his own albums. Though he’s got a knack for crafting dark moods and haunting melodies, Johnson couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag. Lack of vocal ability never stopped Leonard Cohen, one of Johnson’s clear-cut influences, or Mark Eitzel, whose mope rock bears some similarity, but Johnson lacks the former’s incisive writing and the latter’s expressiveness. Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) opens. Joy Poppers 2/23, Empty Bottle Essentially the handiwork of singer-guitarist Tom Szidon, Zoomar! (Widely Distributed), the debut album by the Joy Poppers, arrives as one of the more impressive examples of wiggy pure pop to come out of Chicago in years. Taken alone the band’s melodic skills would be nothing to sneeze at, but Szidon clearly favors the sideways quirkiness of XTC: his songs go in myriad directions, interrupting hooks with weird passages of noise, gloppy harmonies, and off-kilter instrumental virtuosity. Things get a bit too clever here and there, but if you view Andy Partridge as a genius, you’ll probably dig these acolytes. Cypress Hill, Pharcyde 2/23, Aragon Aside from the predictability of B-Real’s nasal rap style and an unfortunate decision to replace the band’s swift humor with gangsta posing, the fact remains that Cypress Hill’s latest record, III (Temples of Boom) (Ruffhouse/Columbia), marks a daring stylistic shift. DJ Muggs has ditched his dusty R & B samples in favor of a more opaque, sinister soundscape that emphasizes textural depth over easy hooks. Rapper Sen Dog recently left the group. Labcabincalifornia (Delicious Vinyl), the terrific second album from LA’s Pharcyde, pares down the foursome’s freewheelin’ musical attack, but its freestylin’ rap skills have only been heightened. Even if the new album’s musical schemes aren’t quite as eclectic as their debut’s, Pharcyde still manage one of the most forward-looking approaches in hip-hop (dig the smartly incorporated soul on “She Said”). The new album is also darker lyrically–bemoaning the travails of showbiz–but the combo’s inventiveness avoids preachiness or complaining. Dopey white-funk dorks 311 also perform. David Broza 2/24, Elbo Room On his latest album, Stonedoors (Mesa), this Israeli-born folk rocker continues setting the work of poets–Whitman, Shelley, Anne Sexton–to a slick flamenco-tinged musical attack (he was raised in Spain). Apart from the Gypsy guitar borrowings and Broza’s dramatic voice, there’s not much exoticism in his work. Leading a true dual existence–he splits time between Tel Aviv and New Jersey–Broza is a bona fide star in Israel while in America he’s just another quirky singer-songwriter type. Rachel’s 2/25, Lounge Ax This odd outfit released one of the more unusual records to come out of the indie-rock scene last year in Handwriting, a strangely compelling amalgam of tightly arranged jazz, classical, experimental, and texture-based music. This gig celebrates the release of the group’s second album, Music for Egon Schiele (both albums are on Quarterstick), the music from which was used in a theater and dance piece presented by the Itinerant Theater Guild in town last year. Performed by core members pianist Rachel Grimes (who also composed the work) and violist Christian Frederickson, along with cellist Wendy Doyle, the album stands in stark relief to last year’s effort, opting for a more straightforward but still contemporary classical effort. It promises to be interesting to see how Rachel’s bridge the distance between these two efforts live. Ruby, Schtum 2/26, Double Door The new vehicle for former Silverfish screamer Lesley Rankine, Ruby craft trip-hop for noise rockers prone to narcolepsy and those curious types afraid to yield fully to dance music culture. On Ruby’s debut, Salt Peter (Creation/Work), Rankine transforms her relentless howl into a breathy croon, suggesting a less sultry and less convincing Beth Gibbons of Portishead. Rankine continues to investigate transgressive subject matter, but with the help of coproducer Mark Walk–who sculpts a variety of textured, mopey settings that veer closer to industrial-rock sounds than club beats–her mental state seems melancholic and constipated rather than angry and frustrated. Schtum are a foursome from Derry whose recent U.S. debut, Grow (Work), proves beyond a reasonable doubt that alternative rock sucks. –Peter Margasak

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