CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO
Friends Seen and Unseen
Charlie Hunter plays an eight-string guitar, so while he's peeling off silvery, mellow lead lines like a younger, straighter Bill Frisell, he can also accompany himself as his own bassist; it's a neat trick, and one I bet drives Les Claypool mad with envy. But it's not one that makes Friends Seen and Unseen, a new record by Hunter's trio with saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips, anything more gimmicky than an easy-listening gulp of fine-lined instrumental jazz-funk. Since Hunter's worked with a wide range of artists including D'Angelo, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and—hey!—Les Claypool, his compositions display the same kind of open-eared formal appetite many of Frisell's do: "One for the Kelpers," Friends' opener, rides a lazy after-hours groove; Phillips gives "Freedom Tickler" a heavy hip-hop bounce; "Darkly," with an airy flute solo by Ellis, could've introduced any episode of The Cosby Show. Throughout Friends, Hunter plays with finesse, lacing "Soweto's Where It's At" with tasty ripples of furrowed-brow electric guitar, juicing "Shuffle" with trashy juke-joint wah-wah, giving "Slow Blues" little jolts of trebly, nearly discordant pointillist squall. In "Bonus Round" he seems to expand the trio by two players, uncannily replicating stand-up bass and creamy Hammond organ while deftly mirroring Ellis' fidgety lead. Consider those players his unseen friends. MIKAEL WOOD
Charlie Hunter Trio play Dimitriou's Jazz Alley at 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 12–Sat., Aug. 14; and 6:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Sun., Aug. 15. $20.50–$22.50.
20,000 Streets Under the Sky
Given sufficient prescience, Marah would have done well to call their third and latest album Don't Shoot Us, We're Only the Hapless Suckers Nick Hornby Singled Out for Potential Deification in His Godawful New York Times Op-Ed Piece on May 21, 2004. Instead they, and we, are stuck with 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. Hornby isn't the only one who likes 'em; their principal role model, Bruce Springsteen, tapped the brother duo for a support slot at Giants Stadium last year, probably because his own kids weren't old enough to open for him yet. He knows that the "next Springsteen" tag Hornby tried vaguely to pin on Serge and Dave Bielanko in the aforementioned disaster doesn't work anymore. Hell, they probably know it. Springsteen is thoroughly diffused as an influence now, like a vapor. Ryan Adams still looks to him in his lucid moments. The Hold Steady load Springsteenian panache and panorama onto their corroded titanium trolley by the bale and ride it blithely through every tunnel they can find. Even Nashville's number one pampered lapdog of the ruling elite—Toby Keith—purloins the Boss' populist chord power in the service of empire. (Insert Garth Vader joke here.) Marah's debt to the Jersey Devil just stands out because it's so big. Besides, they don't rely 100 percent on Springsteen for their slice-of-life, roots-and-branches rock on Streets; if Elvis Costello had written the gorgeous murder ballad "Soda," he'd probably be married to Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Nellie McKay by now. ROD SMITH
Marah play the Tractor Tavern with Grand Champeen and Richmond Fontaine at 9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 14. $10.
If You Can
The only way this Chicago outfit could have named themselves any less appropriately is if they'd decided to be We Love Fun! or Things Are Exploding All Around Me, So I'm Running as Quickly as Possible Toward the Nearest Emergency Exit. The Race make dreary, slo-mo indie pop about sinking feelings and holding onto lifeboats; nothing on If You Can, the band's third CD, sounds anything remotely like a race, unless you're talking about one in which lumbering polar bears wear enormous snowshoes. But because the band elected to make the record with Telefon Tel Aviv—the Chicago duo whose Map of What Is Effortless from earlier this year married the noodly post-rock of the Tortoise set to a warm sense of bleached–R&B songcraft—a few of If You Can's tracks transcend their humdrum origins to blossom into something rather more pleasurable than you'd likely expect. Though singer/guitarist Craig Klein almost ruins it by stretching out a miserable three-note melody to interminable lengths, "Safe and Sound" blossoms into a briefly beautiful rush of mechanized drumbeats and chiming guitars. "Rose" throbs with humid, downbeat-intensive electric guitar, recalling stylish New York post-punks Interpol. Bassist Jeremy Parker is the star in "Ark Again," where his rounded sound offsets Klein's drab guitar plinks. Actually, the Race might've pulled off these modest feats without the help of Telefon Tel Aviv. But it would've taken them until 2021. MIKAEL WOOD
The Race play Graceland with Old Canes, In Praise of Folly, and Talk Demonic at 7 p.m. Tues., Aug. 17. $8.