FENNESZ Over the past 15 years Viennese electronic musician Christian Fennesz has worked with free improvisers like Keith Rowe and Peter van Bergen as well as art-pop auteurs like David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and no matter what the context he can incorporate his collaborators’ styles and improve on them. Whether playing guitar or computer, he primarily uses heady, texture-rich ambience, which he can make soothing or bracing. On his latest solo album, 2008’s Black Sea (Touch), he favors undulating waves of sound that threaten to explode but sometimes just calmly roll on, creating tension from the uncertainty over whether or when they’ll break. On the recent Knoxville (Thrill Jockey), a powerful live recording with drummer Tony Buck (Necks) and Chicago guitarist David Daniell, Fennesz’s output works like a glue that binds Buck’s scrapes, screeches, and propulsive clatter to Daniell’s stormy yet ruminative improvisations. He selflessly grounds the music with his shimmering tones, abrasive feedback, and slashing chords, allowing Buck and Daniell the space to embark on beautiful, exploratory trips. Male opens; Daniell plays second, joined by percussionist Frank Rosaly; Fennesz begins with a solo set and then plays briefly with Daniell and Rosaly, re-creating the instrumental format (if not the precise lineup) of Knoxville. 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $15. —Peter Margasak
GRASS WIDOW All-lady Oakland trio Grass Widow sound the way a Sofia Coppola film looks: slightly muted, as though longing for something it can’t articulate and doesn’t really feel the need to. Their gentle, diaphanous three-part harmonies lend a dreamy ache to the wistful, surfy spy-punk on their second full-length, Past Time (Kill Rock Stars), and it seeps through the songs like a drop of thick ink spreading in a still glass of water. Someone better versed in the history of bands with girls in them could probably deliver a thesis on all the elements they’re revisiting; I hear a way chiller Slant 6 and sometimes the Ex, but Grass Widow’s music is a Polaroid only they could’ve taken. Though you can only make out the words about once every three minutes, you just know the album’s loaded with a vault of symbolic language and experience; it creates depth while accumulating no weight, so you’re not crushed with some overwrought, indecipherable trauma at the end. Still, Past Time leaves behind a shocking sadness when it’s over, like that second after your lover closes the door and you know that’s the last time you’ll see her. Tyler Jon Tyler opens the early show in Hyde Park; Black Math and Nones open the late show. 4 PM, Hutchinson Courtyard, University of Chicago, 5706 S. University. Also 9 PM, Crown Tap Room, 2821 N. Milwaukee, 773-252-9741, donation requested. —Liz Armstrong
RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA QUARTET This year alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has released two small-band records with fellow alto players, but despite their unusual instrumental format neither is merely a blowing session. On Dual Identity (Clean Feed), the recorded debut of his collaboration with saxist Steve Lehman, both men contribute brainy, mathematical compositions that allow Mahanthappa to showcase his mastery of metrically advanced postbop a la Steve Coleman. Over intricate grooves shaped by bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist Liberty Ellman, and drummer Damion Reid, the saxophonists manipulate time as though they’re solving equations in their heads, navigating shifting tempos on “Foster Brothers” and unfurling simultaneous skeins of stuttering, thrillingly bumpy sixteenth notes on “Rudreshm.” Better still, they complement the technical sophistication of their improvisations with raw emotion. Mahanthappa is joined by veteran saxist Bunky Green, one of his key influences, on the brand-new Apex (Pi)—a collaboration they debuted last summer in Millennium Park with a different backing band. It’s less frenzied and more supple than Dual Identity; some tracks borrow from Indian classical music, using briskly winding melodic shapes or 22-beat cyclical patterns, while others update fiercely swinging hard bop with a busy, aggressive rhythm section. Though Green has had an enduring influence on several generations of reedists, the album is no mere deferential salute but rather a rigorous, contemporary statement. The arrangements, filled out by pianist Jason Moran, bassist Francois Moutin, and on several tracks the great drummer Jack DeJohnette (Reid plays on the rest), not only highlight Green’s driving energy and curiosity but also illustrate Mahanthappa’s remarkable ability to locate common threads shared by disparate traditions and build entirely new musical systems from them. For this engagement he leads a variation on his long-running quartet: Moutin, drummer Dan Weiss, and pianist Craig Taborn filling in for Vijay Iyer. Taborn is an agile player, and because he and Mahanthappa aren’t steady collaborators, he’s perhaps more likely to provoke something surprising from the saxist. See also Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20. —Peter Margasak
FOALS The second-biggest surprise about Foals’ recent full-length, Total Life Forever (Sub Pop), is that they’ve totally abandoned the frantic, proggy, highlife-injected dance punk that made their Dave Sitek-produced Antidote a hit in England and on certain dance floors in the U.S., in the process reinventing themselves as purveyors of subtle, cavernously psychedelic pop. There’s still a bit of twitchiness to the songs, but given the contrast with their mega-spazzy debut it seems possible that in the time between records the entire band was diagnosed with ADHD and properly medicated. The change works, though, bringing more clarity to the group’s impressive knack for hooks. The first-biggest surprise? The lyrics to the standout title track seem to be based on the Lemonheads’ “Into Your Arms.” Esben & the Witch open. 10 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, sold out, 18+. —Miles Raymer
RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA QUARTET See Thursday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
SONNY & THE SUNSETS Not that any further evidence was necessary to confirm the good health of the Bay Area music scene, but Sonny & the Sunsets take its creative playfulness and vibrant collaborative spirit to a beautiful new summit. On their 2009 debut LP, Tomorrow Is Alright (reissued this year on Fat Possum), singer and guitarist Sonny Smith tells three-minute tales of strange love and planets of women while the Sunsets—members of the Fresh & Onlys have passed through their ranks, and Sub Pop singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz is currently aboard—provide tasteful, knowing reinterpretations of good-time slow-dance oldies filtered through the very best parts of Jonathan Richman’s post-Modern Lovers sensibility, with fearless detours into other moods and sounds like the Skip Spence Oar vibe of “Death Cream.” Smith is something of a 21st-century renaissance man—he’s not just a musician but a playwright, author, actor, and filmmaker—and this spring he put together an art installation called 100 Records, for which he wrote and recorded 100 songs by 100 different made-up acts (with elaborate backstories to boot) and his artist friends made the record sleeves and fake discs. To top off this “Why the fuck didn’t I think of that?” achievement, he helped modify an old jukebox to play all the music digitally. Stoltz, Vermillion Sands, and Lover! open. 9:30 PM, Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, 773-281-4444 or 866-468-3401, $10, 17+. —Brian Costello
RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA QUARTET See Thursday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
LAWRENCE ENGLISH Lawrence English doesn’t make the same record twice. In 2009 this sound artist from Brisbane, Australia, released two CDs, and the lushly layered, pastoral drones on A Colour for Autumn (12K/Digitalis) feel as different from the brutally distorted digital stutters and blunt, bassy blasts on It’s Up to Us to Live (Sirr) as a baptism does from a funeral. And neither sounds much like the weave of plush keyboard tones, lyrical guitar figures, and distant insect voices on A Path Less Traveled, a collaboration with the Japanese quartet Minamo that he just put out on his own Room 40 label. English has also recently published a book called Site Listening (Room 40), which tweaks the notion of sightseeing by mapping out 17 “listening locations” around Brisbane. One quality that unifies English’s work is his unerring instinct for vivid evocation, which renders potentially abstract material compellingly concrete—on Path, wildlife sounds from a place you’ve never been can feel like a deeply personal memory. He also has a tendency to undermine the hierarchies by which the ear organizes what it hears, so that the things we usually tune out—bugs, bushes, breezes—become just as important as more conventionally musical material. He’ll use both field recordings and instrumental sounds in this performance, his Chicago debut. David Daniell opens. 7 PM, Experimental Sound Studio, 5925 N. Ravenswood, 773-769-1069, $10 suggested donation, $7 students and ESS members. —Bill Meyer
RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA QUARTET See Thursday. 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
NYMPH Guitarist Matty McDermott brings raucous faux-tribal clatter, entrancing psychedelia, and free-jazz chaos to his peculiar art-rock band Nymph. On the Brooklyn group’s debut album—a self-titled, self-released double LP, reissued on CD by the Social Registry this week—he and his frontline partner, singer and percussionist Eri Shoji, shape a number of different moods, hijacking West African guitar music on “Bird Song,” blowing serene-to-screechy clarinet on “Reeds of Osirion,” and summoning wordless Yoko Ono-style yelps and post-Sonny Sharrock guitar skree on the galloping “Il-Yo.” Drummer Jason Robira and bassist Nickle Emmet (both recent recruits from Dark Meat) give the music propulsive oomph and structure without interfering in the otherworldly bizness happening up front—which manages to be appealingly unpolished even as it’s intensely focused. Dark Fog and Verma open. 7 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-4301, $3. —Peter Margasak
VAN DYKE PARKS To paraphrase the lyrics of his frequent collaborator Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks wasn’t made for these times. One of American music’s most endearing oddballs, he’s been a creatively potent anachronism for most of his career. Parks has a thing for pre-rock pop—on the calypso-flavored 1972 album Discover America he saluted folks like Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers—but he combines its winsome melodies with elaborate, almost experimental instrumental accompaniment to make dense, brainy music that doesn’t sound remotely retro. He’s worked with Wilson off and on for decades, writing lyrics to Beach Boys classics like “Heroes and Villains” and “Surf’s Up” and contributing heavily to the aborted Smile; he’s also a gifted arranger, as he recently demonstrated with his rigorous orchestrations for Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album Ys. Parks rarely performs live, but he’s been touring lately with the much younger kindred spirits in Clare & the Reasons; the New York orchestral-pop outfit will open with its own set and then back Parks, who’ll play new songs and material from his classic 1968 debut album, Song Cycle. 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $25. —Peter Margasak
WOMEN There’s a jangly garage pop band hiding somewhere inside the Calgary group Women, but they only let it peek out occasionally, like on the instantly addictive “Black Rice” from their self-titled 2008 album. This is good, as there are probably enough straight-up jangly garage-pop bands out there for the time being. There aren’t enough bands that crash that kind of music head-on into artsy-angular punk—another facet that Women occasionally show—or into soundscapes a little too anxious to be called “ambient.” Women indulge the latter identity a bit more on their recent Public Strain (Jagjaguwar) than on their previous album: two tracks are given over almost entirely to distended drones, and even poppier songs like “Penal Colony” and “Venice Lockjaw” are drenched in reverb and sound washes that lend them a slightly creepy, compellingly enigmatic flavor. Those looking for more or less uncut jangle need to wait till the album closer, “Eyesore.” But the journey there is a rewarding one. DD/MM/YYYY and Netherfriends open. 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $12, $10 in advance, 18+. —Miles Raymer
(Drag City), another knockout collection of original material that elevates Kelly to partner status (he wrote all the music) and gives his long-running band the Cairo Gang equal billing. It’s still Oldham’s show—he wrote the lyrics and sings the songs—but Kelly’s rustic, ballad-heavy folk rock is arranged so intimately that his guitar lines and exquisite vocal harmonies are key pieces of its sonic architecture. (The only other musician on the album is the versatile Shahzad Ismaily, who plays bass and some percussion.) Oldham’s delicate voice sounds both stronger and more vulnerable than ever before: on “Teach Me to Bear You” it trails off into a terrified whisper at the end of the last verse, then returns triumphantly on the bridge, shadowed by a blare of electric guitar from Kelly. The sweet, ragged vocal harmonies connect the album to Neil Young’s early work, but Oldham’s melodies and singing style don’t owe much of a debt to anyone. He’s so consistently good he’s easy to take for granted, but no two Bonnie “Prince” Billy records sound alike—and more often than almost any artist I’ve followed this decade, he turns up on my best-of lists at the end of each year. For these shows Kelly will bring a bigger version of the Cairo Gang with bassist Danny Kiely, drummer Van Campbell, keyboardist Ben Boye, and backing vocalist Angel Olsen.
STRANGE BOYS Rock ‘n’ roll has a long tradition of combining snottiness and undeniable bubblegum hooks, going back at least as far as the generation of sugar-buzzed teen angsters who invented garage rock during the Stones’ first flush of fame—and Austin’s Strange Boys can stand proudly amongst the snottiest and hookiest. Some of the credit goes to the adenoidal vocals of front man Ryan Sambol, which conjure up a two-bit punk who needs that sneer slapped off his face, and some goes to lyrics like the alternate Beatles history “Should Have Shot Paul,” from last year’s The Strange Boys and Girls Club. But most goes to the songs—almost every tune on that album and the more recent Be Brave (In the Red) can wedge itself in your head after just one listen. Gentleman Jesse & His Men and Natural Child open. 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $8. —Miles Raymer
BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY & THE CAIRO GANG See Tuesday. Josh Abrams opens the early show; Scott Tuma opens the late show. 7 and 10 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, $20, early show 18+, late show 21+.
ROBERTO PLANO The 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth has shaped a great deal of classical programming this year. Italian pianist Roberto Plano—first-prize winner at the ’01 Cleveland International Piano Competition and a finalist at the ’05 Van Cliburn International Competition—performs two of his works for this installment of the International Music Foundation’s weekly Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts. Though Plano, 32, is best known for Romantic repertoire, his playing isn’t particularly romantic; don’t expect heart-on-the-sleeve Schumann from this self-effacing artist. First on the program is the gently flowing but ultimately melancholic Arabesque in C, whose publication in 1839 foreshadowed the composer’s incredible writing for voice. Plano will conclude with the mercurial Davidsbündlertänze, a wildly inventive set of 18 character pieces that challenges the performer to articulate tremendous mood swings while somehow balancing expression and structure. 12:15 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630. —Steve Langendorf
!!! Those dance-punk bands that survived past the style’s popular peak in the mid-aughts have mostly done so by adopting new, maturity-signaling sounds, with generally disappointing results. !!!’s polyglot pileup of disco, Afrofunk, dub, rock, and house has never been all that reliant on Gang of Four-isms and cocaine cool, which set them apart from most of the acts they were lumped in with after their breakthrough 2003 anthem, “Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard,” became a dance-floor staple, and their progression since then has been about subtle tweaks to their formula rather than wholesale reinvention. On the new Strange Weather, Isn’t It? (Warp) the group settles comfortably into their grooves, which are now colored more by psychedelic flourishes than the punky energy that animated their early material. But even in a more mellow mode the band still bangs hard, and cuts like “Jump Back,” “The Most Certain Sure,” and the excellently titled “Jamie, My Intentions Are Bass” embody !!!’s commitment to making you dance like the nastiest of nasty freaks. Fol Chen opens. Members of !!! DJ at 10 PM at Beauty Bar, 1444 W. Chicago; it’s $3 or free with RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. 9 PM, Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, 312-666-6775 or 866-468-3401, $18, 17+. —Miles Raymer