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Rock Picks: Built to Spill, Meat Puppets, Julia Fordham

THURSDAY, FEB. 21

Ryan Aylsworth

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Hazelden are either going to the prom or a funeral.

Jamie Mayer

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Hoosier dreamer James Combs

Raul Perez

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No Age, no eyes

Girl in a Coma at the Knitting Factory

Joan Jett knows a thing or two about rock & roll, and her latest protegees, Girl in a Coma, on her Blackheart label are one of the best and most interesting bands to come out of Texas in a long time. Although they're named after a Smiths song, Girl in a Coma are no mere tribute or revival act. Singer-guitarist Nina Diaz is a thoughtful lyricist who has a mighty voice that's in a league with Siouxsie Sioux and the HorrorPops' Patricia Day. And while many of the songs on their 2007 CD, Both Before I'm Gone, have a punk rock base, the group also have the ambition and reach to create epic ballads like "Road to Home," which has a fuller, deeper sound than you might expect from a trio. Diaz is properly enigmatic on "Sybil Vane Was Ill," as her guitar style moves from jangly and jumpy to punky and searing. Phanie D. keeps up a fierce racket on drums, supported by Jenn Alva's restlessly wandering bass. GIAC are actually stranger and more expansive than their influences and can't be neatly pigeonholed or relegated to some convenient genre basement. Don't miss 'em. Also at Alex's Bar, Fri., Feb. 22. (Falling James)

 Pinback at Avalon

Those kings of modern-day jingle-jangle Pinback are back with more ethereal-pop bliss than ever. Despite a title that evokes a Finnish black-metal album, Autumn of the Seraphs is full of the arpeggiating guitars and intricate coils of plucked bass the San Diego duo are known for. Not only that, Zach Smith and Rob Crow's feathery crisscrossing vocals fuel the sort of personal musings that make you think, but — thank god — not too much. Their previous album, 2004's Summer in Abaddon, is considered their commercial breakthrough, but for this fan Seraphs is the melodic, more upbeat return to form that sees them focusing on gooseflesh-inducing songs, reining in the side projects and saving the good stuff for, well, Pinback. (Even so, Crow's 2003 solo disc, My Room Is a Mess, is a delightful one-off totally worth checking out.) These mild-mannered guys don't seem like they'd have a sense of humor, but when they do crack wise, it's always a zinger. (Andrew Lentz)

 Also playing Thursday:

BLACK DIAMOND LOVE, THE FRESAS at the Bordello; WATKINS FAMILY HOUR at Largo; HEALTH CLUB at Mr. T's Bowl; AFRIKA BAMBAATAA at the Roxy; UNIDA at Safari Sam's; THE MONOLATORS at the Scene; ENTRANCE BAND, CRYSTAL ANTLERS, WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS at Silverlake Lounge; HECTORS, EJECT, RADARS TO THE SKY at Spaceland; WEST INDIAN GIRL, DIOS MALOS at the Troubadour.

 FRIDAY, FEB. 22

Hazelden, What Made Milwaukee Famous at the Bordello

Here's a strong bill with two disparate bands that each have a certain amount of commercial potential. Fronted by the "sadly beautiful and awkwardly poetic" singer-guitarist Mary Jane Snow, Hazelden have a radio-friendly alterna-rock sound on their debut EP, Deadstock Rock, that comes off at times like a shinier, sleeker version of Hole. The local quartet are at their most interesting when Snow's more intriguingly personal lyrics on "Loudmouth Bass" and "64 Redcliffe Gardens" emerge from the grunge-pop crush of the sometimes generic production. Despite their boozy name, What Made Milwaukee Famous are a pure-pop band caked with a thick layer of shoegazer effects on throbbing tracks like "Blood, Sweat & Fears." At times the febrile pop harmonies on their upcoming CD, What Doesn't Kill Us (Barsuk), variously recall the Strokes, Guided by Voices and Cheap Trick. "I wouldn't self-destruct for anyone else," Michael Kingcaid confesses against a minimal, harpsichord-like guitar break that gives way to a thunderous power-ballad assault. "Plead with me and beg me not to stay/so you can still get stoned every day," he teases on "The Right Place" before marching up a spiral staircase amid the doomy webbed-bass convulsions of "Resistance St." (Falling James)

 Built to Spill, Meat Puppets at the Echoplex

Provided you're wearing the right shoes, it's never too bad an idea to check in on what Doug Martsch and the psych-jam journeymen in Built to Spill are up to: Though the Boise band's last few full-lengths haven't quite done it for me like their late-'90s stuff did, Martsch is still one of indie rock's most dependable purveyors of sweet-and-sour guitar-army pop. According to the band's rep at Warner Bros., BTS have recorded about half of the follow-up to 2006's You in Reverse; they'll lay down the other half at the conclusion of their current U.S. tour, which kicks off tonight. Turntable-enabled fans should bring some extra dough and pick up a newish two-song 12-inch on which Built to Spill take a charmingly left-field crack at reggae. Last year the Meat Puppets released their first album with input from both Kirkwood brothers in over a decade. Also Sat. (Mikael Wood)

Liars, No Age at El Rey Theatre

Possibly the one act in avant-rock today that has the greatest grasp of how to make syncopation sound interesting, Liars rally their arsenal of strange noises and specially modified zithers to make noise rock as much as they rock noise. No new album since last August's eponymous fourth LP, and they're soldiering on through degrees of stomach flu and back pain, but you need to see Liars like you need a hole in the head: that hole being a mind-altering dose of trepanation. Experimental-rock duo (for which 50/50 is as good an aesthetic as anything else) No Age boast new tracks from their upcoming LP, Nouns (Sub Pop), and of course we were all enlightened by St. Frere-Jones' including them in his expose on L.A. punk in The New Yorker, so get ready for the biggest conflux of cognitive dissonance since the WWF opened its wrestling-themed restaurant in Times Square. (David Cotner)

 Also playing Friday:

HEART at Gibson Amphitheatre; METAL SKOOL, FIREBALL MINISTRY at O.C. County Fair; MARILYN MANSON at Wiltern; GIRL IN A COMA at Alex's Bar; AZTLAN UNDERGROUND at Anarchy Library; ANAVAN, BAD DUDES at Pehrspace; EVIDENCE at Temple Bar; DIRTY SANCHEZ at Viper Room.

SATURDAY, FEB. 23

A.J. Dickerson

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Star collector Tracy Spuehler

Simon Gluckman

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Kind of blue: Julia Fordham

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Taken by Trees’ Victoria Bergsman finds herself “Under Your Leaves” again.

James Combs at El Cid

Oozing melody with every fiber of his being, James Combs won't be one of folk-pop's best-kept secrets for long. This sharp-dressing troubadour possesses an exceptionally nuanced palette of sadder-but-wiser bon mots and keen observations on the human condition, mostly vis-a-vis relationships. And it's not like he hasn't worked for it: Combs once led the Bloomington, Indiana-based Arson Garden, a power-pop casualty of the mid-'90s alt-rock explosion before striking out on his own in the Bay Area and then L.A. His solo debut, Please Come Down, was pure ear candy, while subsequent releases, especially Nice Dream If You Can Get It, are moodier affairs, though the one constant in all Combs' work is a voice that quivers like the world's biggest nerve ending. The brand new To Know You Is to Save You is a supreme balance of both: catchy overall but with enough vulnerability to make it the perfect headphone album. Beforehand, you can see Wisely do their thing, then Buddy hits at midnight. (Andrew Lentz)

Jorma Kaukonen at McCabe's

I first saw guitar god Jorma Kaukonen play what feels like yesterday, if one's definition of "yesterday" is 39 years ago. He was this skinny kid shredding fuzz-box licks with the Jefferson Airplane. It's a distinct privilege to hear an artist evolve over five decades. Kaukonen's electric work with the Airplane and Hot Tuna could singe your ponytail. It's not surprising that he's mellowed and unplugged as he's gotten older, and it's sheer pleasure that he's gotten better as well. While his tone can still pack a punch, he's gained an ethereality that's equally as psychedelic as, say, "Good Shepherd," but travels a humbler route. That his most recent album, Stars in My Crown (Red House), is a gospel album, mixing the Reverend Gary Davis and Johnny Cash, makes sense. Five decades can give a man a more spiritual - and humbler - perspective. For these two nights, he's joined at the very hip by mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff. Also Sun. (Michael Simmons)

Also playing Saturday:

MARILYN MANSON at the Wiltern; THE GEARS at the Airliner; SOUND OF THE BLUE HEART at Boardner's; JAIL WEDDINGS at the Bordello; DAVE MASON at the Canyon; PAUL ROESSLER at the Cocaine; THE COUP at Crash Mansion; BLAQSTARR at the Echo; BUILT TO SPILL, MEAT PUPPETS at the Echoplex; PAT TODD, BACKBITER, URINALS at Mr. T's Bowl; GUILTY HEARTS at the Stone; NELLIE McKAY at Bang.

 SUNDAY, FEB. 24

Sin 34, Joe Baiza's Congress Of, The Jack Brewer Reunion Band, Fatso Jetson, Euge at Liquid Kitty

Fronted by the charismatically bratty Julie Lanfeld, Sin 34 were one of the best W.L.A. hardcore combos in the early '80s, cranking out short, fast and flippant Vice Squad-style rants like "Who Needs 'Em?" and "American America." Now they're back with this unexpected out-of-the-blue reunion with their original lineup, including drummer/filmmaker Dave Markey (1991: The Year Punk Broke). Meanwhile, the longtime South Bay jazz-punks Saccharine Trust, whose songs have been praised by the late Kurt Cobain and covered by Sonic Youth, divide themselves in two this afternoon: Guitarist Joe Baiza fronts his frenetically funky and jaggedly jazzy Congress Of project, while singer Jack Brewer reprises his hard-rocking Reunion Band - now juiced up dazzlingly with Freda Rente's soul-stirring vocals - dispensing such overlooked classics as "Why Did God Create Assholes?" (a less-sentimental precursor to "Smells Like Teen Spirit") and the hilarious animal-rights/revenge anthem "Dog's Liberation." Further thrills come earlier with sets from the monstrous, eclectic desert-rock visionaries Fatso Jetson and singer-songwriter Euge, who was once the young punk who so memorably dissed old folks and dirty buses in The Decline of Western Civilization and has since reinvented himself as a globe-trotting folkie. The show starts at 1:30 p.m. (Falling James)

Also playing Sunday:

ROLLING BLACKOUTS at the Airliner; JAIL WEDDINGS at Alex's Bar; JORMA KAUKONEN at McCabe's; THE STUDI0FIX at Mr. T's Bowl; U.S. BOMBS, ORANGE at Safari Sam's; KILLOLA, GIRL IN A COMA at the Scene; ILL INSANITY at Guitar Center West L.A., 4 p.m.

 MONDAY, FEB. 25

Tracy Spuehler at the Hotel Cafe

"You're like a seasoning or a spice that's baked its way into my life," Tracy Spuehler confides on "All the Way," a whistle-driven tune from her third album, You're My Star. The local singer-guitarist bakes her way into our lives with the charming pop of "Unforgettable," which brackets her endearing melody with stop-and-start guitars. At her best, on tracks like the cheery "Orange Crush" and the steadfast "Holding Out for Love," Spuehler evokes the groovy pop-rock of Anny Celsi and the Bangles' Vicki Peterson. At her worst, she teeters too close to the feeble, cutesy pap of Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crow with such blank and lazy lyrics as "You are my only/You make my heart grow." Spuehler has a facility for sweetly earnest tunes (augmented nicely on the CD with her violin embellishments and producer Liam Davis' low-key instrumentation), but her lesser songs are undercut by simple-minded romantic imagery that could use some, well, spice - and more of the darkness hinted at in the breezy title track, where she gets off on watching her beau get in a fight over her. (Falling James)

Also playing Monday:

GEORGE THOROGOOD at Ventura Theatre; KILLSONIC, LIZ PAPPADEMAS at the Bordello; SMASH FASHION, RANDIES at Crash Mansion; WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS at the Echo; RICKIE LEE JONES at the Echoplex; METAL SKOOL, BURNING BRIDES at Key Club; MIKE KENEALLY BAND at Paladino's; PITY PARTY, ROLLING BLACKOUTS at Spaceland; CASXIO, ELECTROCUTE at the Viper Room.

 TUESDAY, FEB. 26

Ladysmith Black Mambazo at USC's Bovard Auditorium

A cappella gets a bad rap, attributable to aggressively embarrassing shit like Yale University's Whiffenpoofs and the early days of Boyz II Men. When the convergence and harmony of unaccompanied human voices inspires the hearts of the toughest cynics to flinch, it's a rare achievement. Of those most capable, for the generally secular audience anyway, is the renowned men's choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Singular in the so-called world-music community, the long, long-running group (which originated in 1960) sings in the Zulu style of Isicathamiya, a gorgeous and hushed brand of a cappella. The group's contribution to Paul Simon's beyond-seminal record Graceland, and their acutely haunting tracks like "Hello My Baby" and the classic "Homeless," launched the band into huge tours and spots on Sesame Street. Never has the alphabet sounded so profound. (Kate Carraway)

Also playing Tuesday:

ON THE SURFACE at Hotel Cafe; ANNA WARONKER at Largo; HELIO SEQUENCE at Spaceland; MONDO GENERATOR at the Viper Room.

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 27

Julia Fordham at the Roxy

Julia Fordham is a British singer and longtime Angeleno who first came to attention in the late '80s with such languidly elegant mainstream pop songs as "Falling Forward," "Manhattan Skyline" and "Happily Ever After." Like so many other social-climbing pop divas, she's decided to dabble with jazz on her latest CD, China Blue, although she should be given credit for writing her own material instead of trotting out the usual hoary standards. Of course, her version of "jazz" isn't anything daringly bent or adventurously experimental; instead, the musical settings provided by co-songwriter/arranger Grant Mitchell are safely conservative and retro, if tastefully performed. The real thrill here is the way her rich, liquid-y voice sails over the songs, trailing off divinely into the spaces left behind by Mitchell's piano. She's at her best on the somber ballads "Funny Guy" and "My Only Valentine," where her quivering, shivering voice trembles magnificently against the laid-back instrumentation (although perhaps she should just split the difference and cover "My Funny Valentine"). She's generally enchanting, apart from an ill-advised duet with Michael McDonald on a soggy, non-jazzy, elevator-music remake of "I Keep Forgettin'." (Falling James)

Also playing Wednesday:

BRITISH SEA POWER, COLOUR MUSIC, CASTLEDOOR at the Echo; RANKING TREVOR at the Echoplex; CARINA ROUND at the Hotel Cafe; STELLASTARR, THE OOHLAS at the Troubadour.

 THURSDAY, FEB. 28

Taken by Trees at the Roxy

Much has been made of the stylishly somnolent way that Cat Power reinvented the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as a glacial, funereal ballad, but Swedish band the Concretes were just as clever in slowing down the Stones' "Miss You" in 2005 and dragging it out until it was an achingly haunting ode to loneliness. Former Concretes chanteuse Victoria Bergsman is now flying solo with her new project, Taken by Trees, but she's up to her old tricks with a version of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine," which she's transformed into a pretty piano-pop ditty. The title track of Taken by Trees' 2007 Rough Trade debut, Open Field, sallies forth with a soothing string-section instrumental, setting the stage for the gently shimmering pop of "Lost and Found," where she coos with a childlike innocence over candy-cane chimes. She's contrastingly haunting on the spare, chilling piano ballad "Julia." Bergsman was just as engaging when she sang with Peter, Bjorn & John on "Young Folks," from their 2007 CD, Writers Block. She doesn't need to belt it out loudly to make a deep impact. (Falling James)

Phill Niblock, Tom Recchion, Thomas Ankersmit at Beyond Baroque

Here we have a rare opportunity to hear high-quality "experimental" music by three veteran exponents of its varied gripping strands. Phill Niblock is a New York-based "forgotten" minimalist composer and multimedia musician, a hugely influential figure (on Glenn Branca, for one) whose recent work has involved 24-track digitally processed microtonal drones, often via sampled voice, resulting in glacially slow-moving monoliths of sound without easily perceptible melody or rhythm. Niblock was a founder of Experimental Intermedia in 1968 and has been its director since 1985; a heavy presence in the N.Y. downtown new-music scene, Niblock has also put on more than 1,000 concerts in his loft space by the likes of Ryoji Ikeda, Zbigniew Karkowski and Jim O'Rourke. Dutch-born Thomas Ankersmit is an improvising saxophone and electronics maestro working from a distinctly non-free-jazz sphere, preferring post-minimal electro-acoustic explorations in microscopic density and detail. The invaluable Tom Recchion is a Los Angeles Free Music Society founder whose recent work offers exquisitely sampled and orchestrated exotica via laptop. 681 Venice Blvd., Venice; 7:30 p.m. (310) 822-3006. (John Payne)

Funland at the Knitting Factory

While Jello Biafra has been busy further marginalizing himself through a series of asinine statements about his former bandmates, Dead Kennedys co-founders East Bay Ray and Klaus Fluoride have been quietly doing what they always have: exhibiting impeccable musicianship and exploring new avenues of creative expression. Ray, of course, possesses one of the most distinctive and intoxicating guitar styles in rock & roll history, and Klaus has his hands full trying to keep pace as bassist for the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (no easy task, that). While maintaining their much-assailed dignity in the face of Biafra's illimitable hysterics, they've also formed Funland, a new band that Ray guardedly describe as "a work in progress." They're fronted by ex-Wynona Riders vocalist Skip, with former Translator drummer Dave Scheff on the riser. The deliberate air of mystery ups the intrigue ante, but, truth to tell, anywhere that East Bay Ray breaks out that action-packed ax is the place to be. (Jonny Whiteside)

Also playing Thursday:

MISSY HIGGINS at El Rey Theatre; DIPLO, BLAQSTARR at Crash Mansion; SON DE LA FRONTERA at the Echoplex; WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS at Silverlake Lounge; RUN RUN RUN, THE VACATION at the Viper Room.