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BROKENHEARTED VALENTINE

Continuing their leap from being the Elephant 6 collective's red-headed stepchild to being considered equals of their brethren (i.e., Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control), Athens, Ga.'s Of Montreal just keep getting bigger and, more importantly, better. After toiling in the trenches of obscurity for the better part of a decade, despite issuing a slew of killer albums in the process, the band recently released Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl, 2007), which has been nearly universally acclaimed as the band's best album to date.

Of Montreal is largely the work of Kevin Barnes, whose aesthetic began, like most E6 artists, as a lo-fi homage to '60s-era Britpop. But in recent years, the auteur has embraced a newfound '80s-inspired, synth-fueled danceability. Hissing Fauna, then, is the culmination of that merger--beat-happy pop with hook after hook that you won't look silly dancing to. "Gronlandic Edit" features stark verses highlighted by a spare but funky bass line and layered vocal harmonies that veer into falsetto, all the while bringing to mind the era of new wave. It flows seamlessly into the next song, "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger," whose synth-string arrangement and piano part are lifted directly from the feel-good '70s hit "Rock Your Baby."

But Hissing Fauna is far from a retread of the last couple, particularly great, Of Montreal albums in one overwhelming respect: It is far darker and more personal. Apparently, in the last couple of years, Barnes settled down with a woman and had a child, only to have it all come crumbling down on him--which makes sense in context. The old, upbeat Barnes would never sing lyrics like, "The past is a grotesque animal / and in its eyes you see / how completely wrong you can be," against brooding synths and wounded-animal guitar sounds that recall Joy Division as much as past albums have recalled the Kinks. But Barnes' pain is our gain. Chalk up another victory to wounded-artist syndrome--Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is a winner.

Of Montreal perform at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., on Wednesday, Feb. 14. Ariel Pink and DJ Matt McCoy open the all-ages show at 8 p.m. (Enon, originally scheduled to perform, have canceled.) Advance tickets are available for $12 at the venue's box office, rialtotheatre.com or by calling 740-1000. They'll be $1 more at the door. Call the aforementioned number for more information.


NE'ER-DO-WELL VALENTINE

Those expecting a neo-folk album when they pop The Devil You Know, the latest release from Todd Snider, into the CD player are in for quite a shock. The album opens with the rootsy, raucous, Chuck Berry-inspired rocker "If Tomorrow Never Comes" ("If tomorrow never comes / I don't give a damn"), and only occasionally lets up to allow the listener to catch his breath. And even on those more tempered tunes, such as "Just Like Old Times," the lyrics betray a rebellious streak missing from most country-folk artists. ("Just Like Old Times" is a plea to a former lover to blow off her boyfriend and hang out with him to do cocaine and stay up all night talking, reliving the old days.)

Snider's songs can be funny, honest and heartbreaking, sometimes all at once, and he's got a soft spot for the loveable loser, the ne'er-do-well with good intentions who just can't seem to stop fucking up. His press bio states that Snider is "the rare artist who understands and celebrates the connections between the Stones, Dylan, Bill Hicks, John Prine, Mitch Hedberg, Kris Kristofferson, Hunter S. Thompson and Randy Newman"--a bold statement borne out by the character sketches found here.

The Devil You Know was released last year on New Door, an offshoot of Universal Music Group whose roster is composed entirely of artists who are being given a second chance at a shot on a major label. Having released his first album a baker's dozen years ago and scoring a minor hit with "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," Snider has largely enjoyed mere cult status since. The Devil You Know demonstrates why he deserves another shot at finding a wider audience.

Todd Snider performs at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Wednesday, Feb. 14. Advance tickets are available for $12; they'll be $14 at the door, which opens at 8 p.m. Call 622-8848 for further details.


A DARK VALENTINE'S EVE

Listening to "Pass Away," the opening track from Austin, Texas, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Black's recent album, Jericho (Shamrock), I couldn't help but think that this is what the Grinch would sound like if he were a cabaret singer--or, alternately, what Tom Waits might have sounded like had he never huffed all those packs of Lucky Strikes.

Against a bare-bones backing of solo bowed upright bass (Black sometimes tours as bassist for the Golden Arm Trio), Black ominously intones, "Everything you know will pass away." The instrumentation may change throughout the album, but the vibe remains the same: This is dark stuff. The discordant title track is fleshed out with nasty electric guitar and percussion, and Black's vocals sound as if he's singing through a megaphone (a trick pulled straight out of the Waits playbook). But that didn't stop the guttural, lyric-less chorus from echoing through my brain for hours afterwards.

Catch Chris Black perform before headliner Tom Walbank, and after openers Pearl Handled Pistol, on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. The show starts at 9 p.m., and $3 gets you through the door. Call 622-8848 with any questions.


ON THE BANDWAGON

The Arizona Daily Star's Battle of the Bands, in which six local high school acts compete for prizes and bragging rights, will set up shop at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., on Friday, Feb. 9. The six performing finalists in this year's battle are The Watchmen, Kool Shades, The Thesis, Paul Revere, Jon and Jeff and Grandpa Moses. The night begins at 7 p.m., when last year's winners, the Afrodelic Stegosaurchestra, perform an opening set. A suggested $2 donation will be split between the Star's Newspapers in Education program and the Congress Street Historic Theatres Foundation, which aids in funding the Rialto's renovations. For more information, head to aznightbuzz.com.

In honor of Valentine's Day, Lisa Otey is reprising her "Hot Love" show with a little help from Diane Van Deurzen, Burney Starks, Todd Luethjohann, Regina "the Queen" Wills, Jan Parker and Ginger Applegate. A press release promises "the sexiest, sweetest love songs of all time" and "a musical, comical romp through the playful side of sensuality." The series of performances begins on Saturday, Feb. 10, at St. Francis in the Foothills, 4625 E. River Road, with shows at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. From Sunday, Feb. 11, through Wednesday, Feb. 14, the shows move to Z Mansion, 288 N. Church Ave., with performances each night at 7 p.m., plus a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 11. Tickets to each show are $15, available in advance at lisaotey.com or by calling 370-5912. There is also a champagne and dessert package available for $25.

Fans of cracked folk à la M. Ward or early Steve Forbert would do well to check out the upcoming performance by Paleo (né David Strackany), who, according to an e-mail, for the past 300 or so days has "been living out of a van, playing a show nearly every day, booking the tour as he goes, and writing and recording a song each day for a project that he calls The Song Diary." You can check out the songs he's written so far at paleo.ws. If you like what you hear, head over to Café Passe, 415 N. Fourth Ave., on Saturday, Feb. 10. For more info, call 624-4411.

Finally, Soundbites would like to wish the best of luck to local musician, composer, producer and engineer AmoChip Dabney, who is heading this weekend to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards. Dabney's hoping to pick up the award for Best New Age Album for his 2006 release, Beyond Words (Delvian), a collaboration with Will Clipman and Gentle Thunder, recorded in his home studio. This is the second consecutive year he's been up for the award, as he performed on People of Peace, by the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, which was nominated last year. Here's hoping the second time is a charm.

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