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POP MUSIC

Monday, November 15, 2004; Page C05

Earlimart

The most notable participant of a California collective called the Ship, Earlimart doesn't harbor too many high-minded artistic goals. In fact, at the Velvet Lounge on Saturday night, it even stripped away the prerecorded sounds of its recordings and concentrated on straight-ahead indie rock-and-roll. And the hour-long set benefited.

Earlimart leader Aaron Espinoza possesses a voice and compositional style that draw much from the late Elliot Smith, and the remainder of the group -- two guitarists, a drummer and bassist-keyboardist Ariana Murray -- color songs like "The Hidden Track" with shambling tones that recall California-dreamers Grandaddy. But the crowd stuffed into the Velvet's upstairs heard that song and others like "Heaven Adores You," "Broke the Furniture," "We Drink on the Job" and "First Instant Last Report" become bristling rockers.


Earlimart performed Saturday at the Velvet Lounge. (Dan Monick)

Near the end of a two-month tour, Earlimart's road work seems to have produced a keening edge not on its latest disc, "Treble & Tremble." It also manifested a version of Bruce Springsteen's classic road-paranoia meditation, "State Trooper," which surged behind Espinoza's cathartic howls. And even if the set wasn't exceedingly memorable, it was clear that Earlimart's songs are built on more than just group thinking and studio flash.

-- Patrick Foster

Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet, making what he said was his first local performance in four years, ignored both the clock and Father Time while delivering a grungily great set Saturday at the 9:30 club.

The room was double-booked for the night, and Sweet drew the early straw, so he was onstage before 7 p.m. That's an hour when a performer of his vintage and volume would normally be rolling out of bed for a sound check and audiences aren't typically lubricated enough to let their inner rockers out. Also, it has been years since Sweet, who recently turned 40, has had a major-label deal or had been able to get pop radio to play anything but his old solo material.

As could be expected, Sweet's early-1990s tunes -- "Divine Intervention," "Evangeline" and "Someone to Pull the Trigger" among them -- garnered the most huzzahs from the crowd, which increased in size and intensity during the two-hour show. Pete Phillips, the latest in a line of artfully noisy guitarists Sweet has worked with, worked fuzzy wonders while soloing madly on "You Don't Love Me." Despite having more endings than "Shear Madness," the still-divine "Sick of Myself" had fans singing along to the last note.

Yet the tunes Sweet introduced from his two most recent, self-released CDs, "Living Things" and "Kimi Ga Suki," didn't wilt alongside their elders. Of the newbies, "In My Tree" and "Ocean in Between," both of which recall Tommy Keene at his most cacophonous, packed the biggest aural wallop.

Sweet left the stage after delivering his two best psychotic romance tunes: "Superdeformed" melded the themes of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Silence of the Lambs" over Stooges-esque power chords, while during the deceptively dark "Girlfriend" he screamed the climactic lyrics ("And I'm never gonna set you free!") with such melodic force that listeners were powerless but to scream the stalker-friendly line with him. Signs that he's preparing for his post-rock life were all over the concession stand, where "raku-fired" ceramic ashtrays and vases said to be made by Sweet were available for between $35 and $125.

-- Dave McKenna

Sally Timms

If you needed cheering up Saturday night, Sally Timms's show at Iota was not the place to be.

Taking a break from her work with the punk/rock/alt-everything band the Mekons, Timms is on the road supporting her new solo album, "In the World of Him," a melancholic affair that should come with a warning label for depressives. "This tour is sponsored by Prozac because otherwise we wouldn't get through the set," Timms joked to the audience. Or maybe she wasn't joking.

With minimalist accompaniment from her three-piece band, the 44-year-old singer performed a 75-minute set that many could appreciate, but only a therapist could love. The majority of the new songs are slow, occasionally ponderous affairs with images of despair, regret and pessimism, and limned with the sad beauty of Timms's voice.

The cumulative down-and-out effect of songs like "God's Eternal Love" and "I'm Just a Man" might have been too much to bear if Timms weren't so likable and witty. She knows her music is dark, so she lightened things up between songs. With a smile she described the show as "just weird, miserable music about death, failure, more death [pause] followed by a bit of failure."

If the sorrow was sometimes overdone, there was still much to enjoy, particularly the buzzing "Bomb" and the Patti Smith-like "High Dosage."

Opener and fellow gloom merchant Johnny Dowd joined Timms for an encore that included a magnificent version of "Wild and Blue." "Should we move on to the free-form poetry?" Timms suggested to Dowd after a couple of songs. "That's the way to clear a room." And they did. And it did.

-- Joe Heim

Hem

The New York-based acoustic group Hem played at Iota on Friday night with a single-minded unity that gave its serene music an uplifting warmth. Behind Sally Ellyson's peaceful vocals, the six instruments fused into a harmonious blend from which a keyboard flourish or mandolin solo would sometimes escape.

Ellyson's voice floated effortlessly over the melody in songs like "Strays," as she lingered over trills in her lower register. Her efforts were complemented by harmonies from Dawn Landes (who also played glockenspiel); the two melded perfectly in the lilting "Horsey" and "Stupid Mouth Shut." To break free from the overwhelming tranquillity, the group occasionally added a tambourine, which gave energy to "Night Like a River" and "Redwing."

While the sold-out audience cheered in recognition of "Half Acre" and "When I Was Drinking," much of the time the patrons were too busy talking to notice the signs requesting an extra-quiet show. The chattiness started during the opening act (planned opener Shivaree canceled so Landes played a brief solo set). Barely audible against the happy-hour volume of the crowd, she might have had better luck just playing her CD over the club's PA system.

-- Catherine P. Lewis


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