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Spokane; Billy and Liza; Dan Bern; Aspera 

Now Hear This

Who: Spokane
What: "The Proud Graduates" (Jagjaguwar)
Where: Hole in the Wall, Nov. 10 (with Parker Paul, Nad Navillus)

Why: The faded picture of a blossoming cherry tree on the cover of Spokane's new album shows that this is at least a slightly different vision from the bleakly frigid landscape on the cover of the local sad-core trio's first album. And the rainy-day music on this album is in fact a little sunnier.

After pairing down his band's size since his days in Drunk, and tweaking some of the focus since the first album, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Rick Alverson seems to have finally found the perfect way to present his ideas.

Drummer Courtney Bowles makes a big contribution. Her high, sweet voice tempers Alverson's sonorous vocals, and during "The Absentee," she taps out the album's strongest and most upbeat melody on xylophone.

Another important contributor is violinist Karl Runge, brought on around the time this new album was recorded. Alverson has included the violin in spots on his previous work. But here it's a full-time instrument: Runge draws out liquid melodies turning quiet, pretty music into something achingly beautiful.

Only "American Television," which is very straightforward and redundant in comparison to the rest of the album, seems out of place to me. Another slight problem is that the lyrics are hard to make out. The album was recorded in Alverson's Oregon Hill home (but mixed in L.A.).

Overall, there are many albums this year I really enjoy and want to share with others, but this is the only one I'd recommend to everyone I know, young and old. A must-have. — Wayne Melton

Who: Billy and Liza
What: "It's About Time" (SciFidelity Records)
Where: Landmark Theater, Nov. 6 (opening for String Cheese Incident)

Why: Billy Nershi and Liza Oxnard first met in Telluride, Colo., in 1990, so it has taken 10 years of musical collaboration to produce this CD. It is curious, then, why they share writing credit on only one of the 13 tracks on the aptly titled disc. Both Billy and Liza have been busy with their own bands, The String Cheese Incident and Zuba, respectively.

With this in mind, you'll find the album is intriguing: There isn't a bad song on it, but there isn't a great one either. Perhaps they had trouble translating from the stage to the studio, or maybe the problem is that at least five of the songs have been played around with in the SCI repertoire. But most likely it is the startling divisibility of the album between his songs and hers. Though each is listed as musical contributor to all but one of the songs, there is no real fusing of influences. His songs still sound like him, and her songs sound like her, but very few, save "10 Miles to Tulsa," sound like them together. The aforementioned lead track is clearly one of the highlights, with fellow SCI band-mate Kyle Hollingsworth lending his talents on the squeezebox. In fact, despite a solid core of Boulder backups, there are appearances by all members of SCI, further muddling any independence of sound Billy and Liza may have been hoping for. Nershi reinforces his presence as a beautiful acoustic-guitar picker and even gets to brandish the electric on occasion, as well, while Oxnard's own electric is strong throughout, especially on the lone instrumental "Buggin' Out." Other highlights include the reggae tune "Shantytown," which morphs into a sadistic outro featuring some of the best guitar work on the album from Ross Martin; and Oxnard's lovely vocals on "Sweet Tender Lovin.'" It's not a bad album, but after 10 years, I was hoping for something more. — Ford Gunter

Who: Dan Bern
What: "New American Language" (Messenger Records)
Where: Ashland Coffee & Tea, Nov. 13

Why: The fifth album from Dan Bern is an interesting but somewhat uneven mixture of basic folk-rock with a bit of punk attitude and flavor thrown in. Backed by his band, the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, Bern has turned out a basic singer/songwriter album around simple rock and quirky lyrics. Delivering the songs through a heavily Dylan-influenced voice, with a bit of Freddy Johnston thrown in, Bern weaves interesting stories and social commentary. On "Alaska Highway" Bern describes a road trip that brings him into contact with Leo DiCaprio, Britney Spears and "Cheech and Rae-Dawn Chong." The biggest Dylan influence is felt on the final track, "Thanksgiving Day Parade," a 10-minute, slow-building, painting-with-words epic that's complete with a harmonica jam at the end. While Bern and his band come up with a few of catchy tunes, as with many artists of his style, some of the music seems distant and hidden behind his heavy voice and message. — Chris Hudgins

Who: Aspera
What: "Sugar and Feathered" (Big Wheel Recreation)
Where: Hole in the Wall, Nov. 6

Why: The fuzzy ball of rock deconstruction that is this sophomore album contains a lot of good ideas. Aspera would like to think they are all unique, but listeners will think a lot of it sounds familiar.

Aspera's press release calls "Sugar and Feathered" "a conceptual forest," and the four Aspera men do what they can to make that forest as dense as possible. No element — including the drums on some songs — remains unclothed by reverb, distortion or some other effect. In one song the buzz of static becomes so thick you have to struggle to hear what's underneath.

Aspera's press release lists one ancient and inspiring famous name after another — Echo and the Bunnymen, Brian Eno, Bowie — graciously handing reviewers a map to help them through the forest. But when listening to the clamoring instrumentation and singsong melodies on "Sugar and Feathered," one wonders why they left out the most obvious and recent comparison. "Sugar and Feathered" is an interesting and enjoyable record, but The Flaming Lips did most of this before, and much better. — W.M.





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