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SHAKE THAT SHACK

Just about any article you might read about Th' Legendary Shack Shakers will tell you that they combine the sounds of rockabilly, blues, rock 'n' roll, country and punk. How then to explain the first sounds you hear when listening to "Agony Wagon," the opening track from their latest album, Believe (2004, Yep Roc)--what sounds sorta like a steam whistle, followed by a few seconds of drums laying down a rockabilly beat, pause, and then ... klezmer?!

Sure, it's a bit of a hillbilly bastardization of klezmer, but it's klezmer nonetheless, and it serves as notice that on their second album, the Nashville combo have added a few new aural spices to their rack. Where their debut album Cockadoodledon't (originally released in 2002 on Hi-D-Hoh, and re-released in 2003 on Bloodshot) signaled the arrival of a group joining the ranks of bands with garage-y takes on electrified, twang-riddled, swampy rockabilly and blues (practiced by vets such as The Cramps, The A-Bones, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Flat Duo Jets), the follow-up reveals them taking things to the next level. This time around, they employ a larger array of instruments to abet their sound (accordion, clarinet, sax, toy piano and yes, a See & Say), but there's still enough hell-bent guitar licks, fiesty bass runs and frenetic drumming to satisfy fans of the first album. They haven't so much matured as simply gotten better at what they do.

As satisfying as Believe is, the band has almost earned the "legendary" in their moniker for their live performances, which are said to be, in a word, explosive. Hank Williams III has called Shakers frontman J.D. Wilkes the best frontman in America (and the band itself the best in our fair land, too), while no less an authority on such matters as Jello Biafra has proclaimed Wilkes "the last great rock 'n' roll frontman."

Witness the magic for yourself when Th' Legendary Shack Shakers take it to the stage at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Tuesday, Feb. 1. Tucson's own Last Call Brawlers get things rolling at 9 p.m. Admission is $7. For more information, call 622-8848.


GOT YOUR BACK

During its run in the late '80s and '90s, MTV Unplugged saw its share of watershed moments: reuniting all four original members of KISS for the first time in years and the riveting acoustification of Nirvana among them. On par with the best was the 1991 installment that paired a live semi-acoustic band with rappers. Until that point, most audiences had only seen rappers perform with either a DJ or canned tracks; for those of us raised on the energy of live rock 'n' roll, it simply didn't cut the ketchup. So when LL Cool J let loose with an explosive performance of his then-new single "Mama Said Knock You Out," it was somewhat revelatory: It was indeed not only possible for hip-hop to be performed with a live band; it could be an improvement.

Surprisingly few rappers since then have taken the cue. Most hip-hop shows still rely on the rapper/DJ configuration, and many suffer for it, which only makes St. Paul, Minn.'s Heiruspecs all the more impressive. The group features two MCs--Felix and Muad'Dib--backed by a three-piece band: bassist Twinkie Jiggles, keyboardist dVRG and drummer Peter Leggett (didn't anyone explain the rap-pseudonym rule to him?), and breaks the rules further by utilizing absolutely no samples; everything you hear at a Heiruspecs show, or on their albums, is performed live.

Most hip-hop acts that have featured a live band before treated the arrangement as a gimmick of sorts: As long as the band is kickin', the MCs don't need to be. One the most remarkable things about A Tiger Dancing (2004, Razor and Tie), Heiruspecs' second full-length, is that you might not even realize that there's a live band playing behind the rappers; which is to say Felix and Muad'Dib are top-notch MCs who just happen to be backed by a band. The fact that the music here doesn't sound produced to a glossy sheen is an asset, not a liability. There are no air-raid horns, no opportunity to play "name that sample" (even if "Marching Orders" seems to presage the chorus of Snoop Dogg's current single, "Drop It Like It's Hot"), just a funky-ass band that lays down organic beats, groovy organ sounds and low-end bass playing that hits your own low end.

Having performed as backing band for the likes of Aesop Rock, Sage Francis, Oddjobs and Atmosphere, the group is versatile enough to keep each track distinguishable from the next. Stylistically, the MCs recall fellow Minnesotan Slug (Atmosphere) more than anyone, albeit with a bit more soul and a lot less girl problems, but there are also traces of fellow undergrounders like the Def Jux camp here. All told, it stands up as one of last year's best underground hip-hop albums.

Heiruspecs perform on Wednesday, Feb. 2, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. Locals Bandeye and Dakari Connection kick things off at 9:30 p.m. Admission is a fiver. Questions? Ring 'em up at 798-1298.


HEAVY BREATHING

Remember when rock music used to be sexy? Gliss does.

On its 2004 EP Velvet Stars (Mountain Lo-Fi), the L.A. trio demonstrates the various ways in which a band can ooze sex. "Blue Sky" recalls the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' version of it, all skeletal, bloozy garage-rock that understands the power of the build; the title track opts for a dreamy, more sensual take, a la the atmospherics Talk Talk; "Kissing the Blvd" merges '90s slacker rock with cheesy '80s synths; "Strangest Side of Me" is a plodding brooder with verbal come-ons like "I want you for me / I need you for me / It's the strangest side of life / It's the crazy side of me"; and "See You Walking" seduces with its shimmery guitar.

The unifying element to all these stylistic detours is singer/guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Martin Klingman's breathy vocal style which, while effective, over the course of these five songs can tend to sound like he's trying a bit too hard to be, well, sexy. It would work better if the vocals were switched up as often as the musical bed on which they lie, but as is it's rather enjoyable in small doses.

Gliss performs on Friday, Jan. 28, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Three excellent local acts--The Sweat Band, The Okmoniks and Music Video--open the show at 9 p.m. Admission is a mere $3. Call 622-8848 for further details.

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