This Little Underground

Let's all just agree that a free, heartfelt high-five (or butt-slap, your call) will suffice as a gift this year, OK? There, another world problem solved.

The beat

I'll always be a huge Nitzer Ebb fan. When they first emerged, their provocative, militaristic stomp completely shattered my then-conventional notions of dance music. Being in my formative years, that was part of an awakening that fundamentally changed my mind about what music can be.

I'm still harboring trace resentment over missing a chance to see them in an intimate club setting since the parents of my then-girlfriend wouldn't let her go to Visage (the lame-ass restrictions of dating young). But there were many things that had me worried about the unexpected prospect of finally realizing that desire (Dec. 9, Firestone Live).

The force and minimalism of their music has kept them distinctive enough to weather stylistic degradation better than most. A real rock drum kit to augment the electronics helped their rhythmic delivery, and the majority of the synthesized music was prerecorded, so that takes care of that. It really all comes down to Douglas McCarthy's voice, which is a problematic prospect considering the combined effects of age and his abrasive singing style.

Nitzer Ebb's virility has always hinged on the single-minded mania of his vocal delivery. And I'm as shocked as anyone to report that homeboy still has it. McCarthy sounded — and even looked — refreshed. Pardon me for half-expecting a swollen English sausage of a man with blown vocal chords bursting from a wife-beater and suspenders. But, no, out came a svelte and electrified frontman fully fit to bring the show, a critical quality considering the physicality of their music. Compared to all of his peers I've seen doing the reunion circuit, McCarthy makes them look like cobwebbed geriatrics. He knows how dependent the Nitzer Ebb product is on him, and he delivered almost singlehandedly. And I'm more than a little proud of the guy for it.

Now I'm not saying they're gonna make a storming comeback or anything, but they definitely filled a specific gap in my soul. Considering the perilous nature of long-held childhood expectations and the toll of time, that's a considerable feat. Equally impressive was the surprisingly healthy and spirited turnout of Ebbheads.

Cleveland's Mr. Gnome made their Orlando debut (Dec. 8, Back Booth) and earned an open invitation here. In the incredibly economical duo of Nicole Barille and Sam Meister, he does the heavy hitting as a forceful, dynamic drummer who occasionally plays keyboard and she does the heavy lifting as a frontwoman who wields two mics, one guitar and an army of pedals by herself. As if that weren't enough, she further builds remarkable dimension through live loop construction on both guitar and vocals.

Barille belongs to the powerful tradition of edgy female vocalists who know how to take beauty into the darkness. Full of ethereal tone and gritty soul, her voice has stripes of Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Angela Mullenhour (Sybris) and even a little Siouxsie Sioux. It's undeniably feminine, but her execution bucks the stereotype that implies.

Mr. Gnome's taxonomy-defying style is a mix of many things that seem disparate but come together in an original and effective way. A drifting, brooding mood will be stabbed with crashing aggression and recover again just as suddenly. Their pairing of celestial and noisy, atmospheric and slashing is weird enough to be interesting without being a quirky gimmick. Together, they coax as robustly as they kick, and the juxtaposition works miraculously.

Well, it seems that much-hyped Long Beach act Crystal Antlers (Dec. 12, Back Booth) is all that and a bag of bacon. Their music is an astonishingly soulful bomb of garage, psych, blues and prog that sounds more than a little like King Khan on heavy psychedelics. It's a full-room throb that's unbelievably dense in atmosphere and dynamism. And, holy shit, no one plays a tambourine with more vigor and verve than percussionist Damian Edwards.

Over on Mills was the CD release party for local rockers Bob on Blonde (Dec. 12, Will's Pub). Their previous direction polished every bit of personality from their sound. I don't know what that little detour was all about, but their new album (State of the Star) and live show seem to have gone back to basics, which is where they excel.

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