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This Little Underground 

Man, I sure hope you caught Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields last week at the Florida Film Festival. The hyper-literate oddity that is Merritt makes it a uniquely compelling rock doc.

The beat

It's absolutely true that music need not be inventive to be satisfying. Atlanta chanteuse Sonia Leigh (April 14, Back Booth) doesn't attempt any arty spin on the country-rock meme. She rides grooves that are well-worn for good reason, and she does it right. Her fundamentals — a ringing sense of melody and a powerhouse voice that's like a hard-twangin' Melissa Etheridge — are what make it settle in all the right places.

But next to local opener Dagnese, Leigh's band was like manna from heaven. Honestly, I should've known I was walking into a social abyss when a group of patrons that was Orlando's answer to Jersey Shore followed me in. It doesn't get any more artistically vacuous than Dagnese's gutlessly sensitive rock. I get why some guys peddle this dreck — as long as there are girls who will fall for it, it'll be done — but insincerity and shallow taste are the real motivations behind this stuff. I'm sure mirrors are helpful to a pretty-boy pop-rock band, but I wouldn't be able to look at myself if I were in this act.

To illustrate the varying degrees of worthiness in soft rock, take David Gray as an example. Like Dagnese, his sensibilities are equally milquetoast. And neither white zin nor bedwetting is in my repertoire, so that precludes me from being a real fan. However, Gray's music is far more listenable and distinctive. The key difference is Gray's palate, which at least shows trace amounts of sophistication.

Still, it would take something absolutely incredible to induce me to a David Gray show (April 15, Hard Rock Live). And in my vocabulary, "absolutely incredible" and "David Gray" do not occur together. However, somewhere in the beige suburb of his adult-contemporary soul, some serious strand of taste must exist because apparently the dude's a big enough fan of Phosphorescent to take the excellent act on tour with him. Yep, that's "incredible" enough for me, so I went.

The mood-rich, elegantly rendered country of Matthew Houck's musical vehicle is more suited to a proper listening room than a honky-tonk so it was a rare treat to see Phosphorescent on a big stage. It underscored how much his spare, ghostly twang has blossomed into something splendorous and grand. But to Gray's credit, he was a pretty solid performer, too.

Epic post-rock bands can be pretty complicated productions. Not so with Gainesville's Smoke Signal (April 13, Bar-BQ-Bar), who managed to flood a room with just two players. Any band that can achieve the kind of high drama and soaring scale that they did in such challenging bar environs is a band that doesn't need you to hand over your attention; their evocative power simply takes it.

What's great about these Tuesday night free shows at Bar-BQ is that they return the usual scenester parade of the bar to a closer spirit of what the joint represents in theory, since it's regularly the most concentrated congregation of music heads downtown. Don't worry about the near-total absence of advance lineup notice, just show up. It's guaranteed to be interesting.

I recently told you about the audio-visual excellence of Sloppy Disk and they still killed (April 17, Back Booth).

Popping off after them like a string of firecrackers was local duo 1991. Their exultant, teetering clamor-punk is what you get when you take wild, frenetic dynamics and blissed-out melodic passages and throw 'em all into a rusty, lidless blender. It's the sound of emotional liberation, and I can't wait to hear their upcoming album (digital and cassette releases expected on Post Records in late May).

Local headliner Viernes is one of the more resolutely abstract psych-pop bands of the mighty new class. But their live show has become significantly more percussive and punctuated, especially with the addition of a live drummer. It's a timely development since they're now positioned for primetime. With some heavyweight indie press momentum leading into the release of their debut album on skyrocketing Brooklyn label Kanine Records (June 8), these guys are poised to be Orlando's next big breakout, and few deserve it more than they do.

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