SPARE RIB & THE BLUEGRASS SAUCE

Mountain Air Waves

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(Self-released)

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According to Wikipedia.org (user generated, sure, but still probably very accurate in this case), bluegrass music started sometime in the 1940s—"sometime after World War II, but no earlier." The genre has had decades and no less than three "waves" to shift and morph, yet most modern bluegrass maintains a classic, string-heavy, harmonious sound; it is, perhaps, one of the purest genres in modern music (read: boys with bad haircuts and styled-to-death outfits have not turned it into watered-down drivel).

For example, local group Spare Rib & the Bluegrass Sauce's Mountain Air Waves, an album of original material and one wonderfully odd cover of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine." Even though it's 2008, the quintet—Sean "Rib" Horst, Hunter Hendrickson, Emmitt Prichard, Alice Boytz, and John Brown—delightfully capture all the same vibrancy that made their finger-pluckin' forefathers classic.

The percussionless sound is familiar, but Spare Rib & Co. do it well—playful layers of fiddle, banjo, and mandolin are heightened by memorable choruses that burst with three-, four-, even five-person harmonies.

And as for that Guns N' Roses cover, well, there are fiddles instead of guitars, straw hats instead of do-rags, and denim overalls instead of leather pants. I can honestly say I've never heard anything like it, and I mean that as the highest compliment. MEGAN SELING

Spare Rib & the Bluegrass Sauce play Sat Jan 26 at the Foggy Goggle Bar at Stevens Pass, 6 pm. Visit their website at www.myspace.com/bbqgrass.

THE HELIO SEQUENCE

Keep Your Eyes Ahead

(Sub Pop)

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I read somewhere a long time ago that the dudes from Portland duo the Helio Sequence, Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel, worked at a guitar shop, and that makes a lot of sense. The Helio Sequence always seemed like guitar-store-employee rock—music that placed technical craftsmanship and pedal-board clutter above pedestrian concerns like, say, catchy songwriting. Their albums were consistently shimmering, psychedelic, and sonically impressive but not all that memorable.

Which makes Keep Your Eyes Ahead a major breakthrough for the band.

Opener "Lately" has the soaring, starry chorus of a late-period U2 song, but in a good way. The ragged, rapid-fire vocals and doubled melodies of "Can't Say No" are instantly catchy. "The Captive Mind," "Back to This," and "Hallelujah" all recall the more shining moments of Modest Mouse (a band Weikel has done time in), with their wounded pop cadences and spare, subtly layered instrumentation—the hushed verse of "The Captive Mind" pretty specifically cribs a melody from "Gravity Rides Everything." The title track is alternately haunting and driving, delicately propulsive verses giving rise to aerial choruses. Bob Dylan's influence is noticeable, though not distractingly so, on weary ballad "Broken Afternoon."

The story behind the album is that vocalist Summers destroyed his voice during six months of touring in support of the Helio Sequence's Sub Pop debut, Love and Distance. Summers was mute for days at a time, ordered by his doctor not to sing for two months, and worried that he'd never sing again. He passed the time reading a lot of books, including Dylan's Chronicles. He eventually started a serious regime of vocal exercises and regained his voice.

The result of Summers's ordeal is the band's best album yet. The careful production touches and rigorous musicianship are still here, but they're in the service of the catchiest batch of songs the Helio Sequence have yet to produce. ERIC GRANDY

WHITE WILLIAMS

Smoke

(Tigerbeat6)

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Given that White Williams comes up from under the wings of Girl Talk and Dan Deacon, and records for Kid606's Tigerbeat6 label, you might reasonably expect some toy-electronic seizures or mischievous sample fucking from the man born Joe Williams. But on debut album Smoke, Williams proves to be a subtler brand of joker than his references would suggest. In fact, his one great gag is a kind of cool, detached take on late-'70s electric glam funk—smooth, little laptop reductions of Bowie or Bolan.

But while Smoke is playfully stoned, it's not entirely a goof. "Headlines" may be full of spinning-newspaper non sequiturs and its chorus echoed by a comically detuned baritone, but it also rides a convincing groove. "In the Club" is heavy on the pastiche, but it also has an undeniable sway and charisma. "New Violence" is a politely pogoing new-wave workout. The title track is an odd funk gem, full of wobbly, staggering bass, silky synth flutes, and evenly exhaled vocals.

There are no obviously sampled hooks here, but Williams's affected vocals and deftly laid-back arrangements make sneaky references throughout. And two tracks register as more firmly tongue in cheek: the rote, druggy cover of "I Want Candy" and the ring-modulated, sample-and-hold outro "Lice in the Rainbow," in which Williams finally lets his circuit-bent, inner Dan Deacon out.

Held up to his putative peers, White Williams is practically easy listening. But for anyone unfamiliar with his buddies, Smoke is just unusual pop from an unlikely source, hazy but vaguely familiar. ERIC GRANDY

Support The Stranger

White Williams plays Thurs Jan 24 at Club Pop at Chop Suey, 9 pm, $8/$10, 18+. With Health, Check Minus, DJ David Wolf.

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