This Little Underground 

Our live music columnist takes on La Roux, Maps & Atlases, Rasputina, Faun Fables, Shearwater, Damien Jurado and the Kow reunion

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I’m telling you, we are all going to pay dearly for the outcome of these midterm elections. And we will deserve it.

The beat

For all their nutty 18th-century costumes, a Rasputina show (Oct. 31, the Social) is as suitable a place as any to be on Halloween night. Their drama-laden, goth-rock take on chamber music – dueling cellos! – is strange but in a realized and cohesive way. Providing powerful punctuation was frontwoman Melora Creager, who works a cello with the attack and flair of a lead guitarist.

Equally bizarre but in ways far less fathomable was opener Faun Fables. Although they sound atmospheric and enchanting on record, their flimsy live performance gave little to focus on other than the latent silliness in their sensibility. While interesting, I’m now convinced that their woodsy freak-folk requires a far deeper interest in Wicca or LARPing than I can muster. Even when Nils Frykdahl’s growling vocals introduce a dark edge, they still sound like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum made soft by too many renaissance faires. Live, they’re about as goofy as CocoRosie, only (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) not as good. And unlike CocoRosie, they weren’t remotely funny enough to have an ironic laugh at, which pretty much leaves me at a loss in terms of even a backhanded silver lining.

Also prone to musical histrionics is Austin, Tex.’s, Shearwater (Nov. 4, the Social). But however uneven they are on record, their accuracy and incisiveness is multiplied tenfold live. Their odd, vaguely rustic drama rock is inventive in construction and riveting in execution. Validating all of their arch fervor and dread was the powerfully restless energy in their playing. They may speak different dialects, but Shearwater’s penchant for shivering theatrics makes it obvious why bandleader Jonathan Meiburg has recently teamed up with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart for Blue Water White Death. Practically speaking, Shearwater is an earthy, Arcadian and symphonic Xiu Xiu. And their performance was dynamic, purposeful and completely impressive.

Opener Damien Jurado is one solo acoustic artist who actually delivers a filling performance. There’s a delicate, airy
quality to his character-rich voice that elevates his bedroom indie-folk above the typical sad-sack fare. It’s subtle and vulnerable but not at the cost of gravitas. And his use of a
second mic for reverbed vocals was a simple but thoughtful device that added tons of depth and horizon, making him sound like Neil Young at the end of a long, dusty hallway.

The club-savvy synth-pop of London’s La Roux (Nov. 2, Hard Rock Live) is essentially a new-millennium Communards led instead by a glamorously androgynous woman. But as decent as their tunefully economical songs are, they’d be nothing without the charisma and style of the Tilda Swinton-esque Elly Jackson. That goes double for their live show. Without her, they’d just be a bunch of stiffs in New Romantic costumes, but with her enormously magnetic presence and soulful voice, they’re big live.

If a mostly white audience clapping along on time (to a complex rhythm no less) isn’t a sure sign of a math-rock crowd then I don’t know what is.

Despite the unmitigated nerditry of multiple guitarists totally shredding with just finger taps, the finespun music of Chicago’s Maps & Atlases (Nov. 6, Back Booth) was melodically lovely. Crafting something this difficult to play yet so easy to listen to isn’t just an accomplishment, it’s a true mark of pop craftsmanship.

Despite their deep local significance, soul-funk band Kow is not one of my sacred, um, cows. Their latest reunion featuring all original members was apparently a big enough deal to warrant back-to-back nights at two different clubs (Nov. 5, the Social and Nov. 6, Will’s Pub). If you’re not into the never-ending noodle bowl of this kind of jam session – and I’m not – they won’t change your mind. The most impressive chops in the world don’t make a played concept any more innovative. Even without any sense of obligatory reverence, however, I was impressed with the bonanza of skill onstage. Still, seeing a local heritage band like this is a reflection of how much the city’s scene has evolved and deepened in color and edge, and thank god for that. Nice to do a cheers to history and all, but a real future is a much better thing to toast.

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