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Guilt by Association

RANDY NEWMAN at Royce Hall, UCLA, January 23

SHOCK AND AWE: THE SONGS OF RANDY NEWMAN at Royce Hall, UCLA, January 24

No one can call an Oscar, Emmy and multiple-Grammy winner anything but a show-biz insider, but like Groucho Marx, Randy Newman is still working through his club-membership issues. In various song intros during Friday’s piano-only concert, he managed to insult everyone involved with “We Are the World,” Clint Eastwood (for the director’s Mystic River score), his employers and himself: “They pay me ridiculous amounts of money to write [film music], and it’s no good, and they don’t know it.”

But the songs’ strength consistently belied Newman’s self-deprecation. Playing and singing more confidently than ever, he sailed through two 50-minute sets, mixing crowd pleasers (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Short People”) with less-celebrated but often richer material (“Red Bandana,” “Dixie Flyer”). The breadth of his catalog generated some intriguing contrasts: In his encore, an utterly bleak “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” underscored the sprightly ironies of “Laugh and Be Happy.” A more trenchant pairing closed the first set, with the mock-anthemic “Follow the Flag” segueing into “Song for the Dead,” set in Vietnam but all too relevant to Iraq.

Newman’s songs don’t require traditional vocal chops — as their author shows — but a few ill-chosen performers at Saturday’s Hal Willner–produced tribute proved that basic musical know-how doesn’t hurt. The nadir: Rip Torn, who went embarrassingly south on both “Political Science” and “Roll With the Punches.” That said, Willner and Janine Nichols deserve full credit for assembling a remarkable backing band, composed of a small orchestra, rotating pianists and conductors (including Van Dyke Parks and Ted Reichman), and a Nudie-clad country-rock trio, with guitarist Bill Frisell floating above and among them all.

This ensemble did justice to Newman’s music, even behind performers who didn’t. Among those who did: pianist/singer Robin Holcomb, bravely reharmonizing the obscure “Shining,” and Gavin Friday, who turned “In Germany Before the War” into Weimar cabaret and “Prettyboy” into high camp. Vic Chesnutt, the tribute’s emotional anchor, nailed the especially nasty “I Want You To Hurt the Way I Do” early on, and led a closing sing-along of “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” dedicated to our current president. Chesnutt also revealed himself as a kindred spirit to Newman, biting Willner’s hand by tossing off the entire three hours as “our little . . . circle jerk.”

MOTORCYCLE BLACK MADONNAS, THE URINALS, THE HACKS at the Buccaneer, January 18

Sierra Madre’s downtown drag, where the local community theater advertises an upcoming Neil Simon production, is not exactly the Sunset Strip. But the Buccaneer has $3 drafts, a lurid pirate mural and enough outlets for a small PA — what else does rock & roll need? Motorcycle Black Madonnas could have beamed in from 1974, with a fishnetted firebrand of a singer (Marea Katopodis), a bearish guitarist (Backbiter’s Jonathan Hall) and an absolute monster on bass, one Steve Reed, essentially John Entwistle occupying the body of Isaac Hayes. Reed’s showy but dead-on playing and Hall’s solos rose several miles above the uninspired “classic rock” material.

Punk never happened for this band; for the Urinals, it’s still happening. Kevin Barrett drums less frantically than when they first re-formed, and Roderick Barker’s guitar parts are closer to garage-pop than to the post-funk of departed founder Kjehl Johansen; “Cartophilia,” from the new What Is Real and What Is Not, was downright pretty. But the closing “Presence of Mind” still stuttered like topflight Gang of Four, and one brand-new Pixies-style seether found bassist/front man John Talley-Jones as sardonically grim as ever: “After the fire,” we learned, “there’s no room for you.”

The Long Beach–based Hacks opened with 10 minutes of equipment mishaps that would have ruined a less low-key show. Once settled, they got rolling only fitfully due to a tentative rhythm section. But Rob Roberge and Jordan Mott’s songs have unshakable country-rock foundations, and their best display more wit and everyday Carver/Bukowski despair (“She left me face down on the marble/Shower stall at the Hotel Grand”) than a C60 of phone messages from Ryan Adams. Not a slick band, but an honest one — and the same goes for the venue. (Franklin Bruno)

MONOLAKE, TRICHOME, BEN MILSTEIN at Zip Fusion, January 16

Who would have thought a neon-lit sushi emporium in Little Tokyo would play host to the most advanced party in the city? Barely inside this trendoid eatery near the former Al’s Bar, the medicated aerobics of subterranean beat freaks threatened an elbow to the gut (or a toe to the shin) while the aquamarine glow of laptop schematics washed over you. Now that’s breaking down the audience-performer barrier.

Software programmers as the new rock stars — yeah, a scary thought in anyone’s book. Yet the body-rockin’ benefits of the über-geeky NAMM convention, which took place earlier in the day, were everywhere in evidence. Germany’s Robert Henke — known to minimalist techno heads as Monolake — was deep into the Ableton Live program (ideally suited for spontaneous mixes, its author told me). But as far as the groove-slaves were concerned, it was just 1s and 0s. The cloying synths in the middle of his third encore notwithstanding, Monolake’s brutal-ethereal, knotty-fluid swatches culled from Cinemascope, Gravity and Momentum were a visceral snowballing of tone, tension and thorny algorithms.

Earlier, Ben Milstein and Trichome — core members of the homegrown Pax/ELM Conceptions crew — and their hard-house/IDM hybrids were the circuit-blowing definition of on-the-fly mixing. It was all fun and eggheaded games till the “surprise” set from Atlanta’s Richard Divine was scotched due to technical difficulties, but Trichome came to the rescue with a brief session that climaxed with a slo-mo sine-wave oscillation thingy (see the first scene in French filmmaker Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible) that suggested entropy or nausea. Ibiza this was not. (Andrew Lentz)

PALOALTO at the Viper Room, January 16

Seen through fashion’s fickle filter, the L.A. foursome Paloalto are already drifting out of focus, and their stylistic statement is similarly fuzzy, immediately recalling KROQ’s staple Y2K-straddling playlist — classic U2, (early) Radiohead and can-do-no-wrong Coldplay. Though Paloalto are perhaps Rick Rubin’s most unlikely, poppiest protégés, it’s easy to see why the visionary producer (Beastie Boys, Slayer, etc.) signed them to American Recordings in 1999: Their songwriting is consistently inspired, James Grundler’s vocals touch nerves, and they possess a rare mastery of rock & roll arrangement. But after two albums of limited commercial impact, what’s Paloalto’s place in 2004?

On a dimly lit, smoke-draped stage, they appear gentrified despite flowing locks, and don’t put a foot wrong: melancholy descending progressions, a succulent pulse-’n’-pause rhythm section, competent cataracts of effects-colored guitar over strummy acoustic and semiacoustic backbones, and balmy harmonizing with Grundler’s pleading melodies and delicately gauzed sustain. Somehow Paloalto are simultaneously epic and intimate, outdoorsy and indoorsy, strutting on the cliff tops and whispering in our ears. They’re expert at manipulating dramatic dynamics and, when they choose to be, pumpingly powerful, but their resonance remains personal, undiluted by sculpted depth-of-field or moments of unison bombast.

Yet Paloalto’s agreeably familiar backdrop of alt-rock influences grows transparent when stretched over an entire set. Grundler telegraphs his stimuli via Thom Yorke cranial gyrations and falsettoed anguish, and an affected Irish speaking accent that suggests one too many listens to Live at Red Rocks. That’s not to say this isn’t quality stuff, and Paloalto deserved more from a sardined Friday crowd, many of whom seemed as interested in the venue as the band. While it’s comforting to know that high-caliber songsmiths like this can still garner attention in Tinseltown, Paloalto’s mark would linger longer if they sacrificed a little comfort-zone proficiency for the sake of nonconformity and personality. (Paul Rogers)