It makes sense that a former street musician would love life on the road, and after almost two decades of constant touring, Martin Sexton has quietly built up a large, loyal following all across America. The singer-songwriter's appeal is in the way he approaches the stage like a street corner, hopping from song to song, style to style with the charisma, spirit and passion of someone with nothing left to lose.
Backed by only his guitar and his rubber band voice, Sexton doo-wops on one tune and then scats on the next. At times he invokes the gospel-soul of Otis Redding and then suddenly breaks into the country croon of Jackson Browne, only to give way to a falsetto as sweet as anything this side of Aaron Neville. His shows are stories, and his songs are characters playfully ushering the audience through the patois of American music.
Seven albums into his career, Sexton isn't slowing down anytime soon. But this time as he crisscrosses America, the road warrior is doing more than just bringing his dynamic performances to the people. He's minimizing his effect on the landscape he loves by traveling in a biodiesel bus and selling only recycled merchandise at each show. Talk about street smarts. Martin Sexton plays with Martyn Joseph at 8 pm Sunday, Oct. 7, at the WOW Hall. $10 adv., $12 door. — Jeremy Ohmes
Case of the Zombies
Hey girls and ghouls, ready to wake up the dead? The Cramps coined this phrase during a show in 1995. The band has been credited by some as being one of the founders of the gothabilly/surf rock movement. Whether that is true I don't know, but the Cramps' unique mix of fun-loving surf sound, rough bellowy vocals and a focus on horror/monster themes has largely influenced the sound of many bands today. Bands like The Horrors, My Bloody Valentine and the Tucson band The Mission Creeps credit The Cramps as having had the largest impact on their music.
The Mission Creeps stay true to the classic surf rock style coined by The Cramps, using zombie inspired themes (check out the tracks "Graveyard Shift" and "Empty Coffin"), fast tempos and bluesy guitar riffs. The lead singer, James Arrr, has the perfect voice for this genre of music — a little Elvis mixed with some Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. The band manages to stand out from the growing crowd of gothabilly and surf rock bands with their use of a multitude of instruments: accordion, theremin, harmonica and percussion, as well as a live show that includes gyrating go-go dancers and B-movie inspired theatrics. It looks like somebody's got a case of the zombies!
Just in time for Halloween, The Mission Creeps play at 9 pm Wednesday, Oct. 10, at Sam Bond's. 21+ show. $5. — Deanna Uutela
So many terrific singer/songwriters have hit the big time in the past few years — Neko Case, Jenny Lewis, et al — that it's saying a lot to put Nellie McKay at the top of the list. But it's hard to think of any other recently emerged star who can boast the intelligence, cleverness, stylistic diversity, hooks and humor of the irrepressible 25-year-old New Yorker. A former standup comedian, award-winning stage actor and writer, McKay's engaging stage persona, easy tunefulness and rapid-fire wit make her wry lyrics — about anything from peckish political zombies to identity theft to political protest to female stalkers — go down easy. Veering from '50s pop to '30s movie musicals to reggae to hip hop (she's a more than credible rapper, her effervescent cuteness somehow coming across as sly rather than sappy), the conservatory-trained pianist delivers lines like "I wanna pack cute little lunches / for my Brady Bunches / then read Danielle Steel" with a wide-eyed, thousand-watt grin.
McKay has enchanted critics, veteran jazzers (many of whom play on her wild new album, Obligatory Villagers) and even former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick as well as a growing legion of fans. Eugeneans will especially appreciate her feisty activism: She's taken on animal rights violators, the current commander-in-thief, right-wing jingoism and her former record company, which resisted her insistence on releasing a two-disk album. But everyone who appreciates smart writing, memorable melodies and antic performance should enjoy this solo show. Nellie McKay performs at 7:30 pm Friday, Oct. 5, at The Shedd. $22-$32. — Brett Campbell
It's possible you're unaware that Sweden is a hotspot for pop brilliance. I don't just mean pop of the Max Martin variety (he's a songwriter and producer for the sort of glossy teen pop tunes that get unpleasantly stuck in your head), but pop across the spectrum. My knowledge is a bit dated, but that doesn't make the political pop punk of Randy, the yelpy gallops of Bob Hund (a band that might have been international superstars had they sung in English), the horn-decorated power pop of The Mopeds or the string of boppy melodies on A Chance to Shine, a 1996 compilation, any less infectious. More recently, the country's sent us the gorgeous, timeless strains of Peter, Björn and John's "Young Folks," among other tunes. Either there's something in the water, or the compulsive joy of Swedish pop is like the opposite of grunge: The Swedes take long dark days and cold and turn them into audio sunshine rather than audio gloom.
In keeping with longstanding Swedish tradition are The Shout Out Louds, who appeared in 2005 with Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, a major label debut. Singer Adam Olenius' creaky voice took some getting used to, but the songs were too clever to make you wait. "The Comeback," the album opener, showed a band with a tight rein on their propulsive tendencies; the buildup to the gleeful "100 Degrees" was perfectly timed.
But The Shout Out Louds didn't make the splash they maybe should have — yet. Now they're on indie label Merge, and their second album, Our Ill Wills, is nearly as good as the first. Olenius has embraced the similarity his voice bears to that of The Cure's Robert Smith, and the songs seem to have gone the same direction: Somehow, they're both sparkling and dark, more reliant on percussion, more laden with love themes and tinkling, fairy-dust sprinkled melodies (and the lovely addition of more vocals from keyboardist Bebba Stenborg). The Shout Out Louds have the rambling, heartfelt feel of Canada's Stars or Arcade Fire, tempered with a hearty dose of self-deprecation: What's not to love about a record that begins, "Don't you come up to me and say you like it / It's better you say you hate it / That's the truth exactly"? It's not hardly the truth, not at all. The Shout Out Louds play with Johnossi and Nico Vega at 9 pm Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the WOW Hall. $10 adv., $12 door. — Molly Templeton
Raw. That's one way to describe L.A. trio Nico Vega. Known for their energetic shows and unique sound, the band is touring to promote their latest release, No Child Left Behind, which is charged with rich commentary on the human condition in a time of social change. Perhaps the mystique behind Nico Vega is partly due to the blend of familiarity and newness found in their music.
On par with the Hollywood indie genre sound, the infectiously catchy first track "Gravity," about self-worth, paints a vivid picture of L.A. scenesters swaying back and forth in Spaceland; meanwhile, "Be Giving" goes another direction with more angst and aggression from all three members. The staple sound of Nico Vega is the painfully passionate voice of the lead singer, Aja Volkman, whose singing is as beautiful as her looks. The haunting vocals of the former Eugenean are packed with squeaks, howls and a vocal range that will leave you drained but wanting more.
Nico Vega opens for the Shout Out Louds on Wednesday, Oct. 10 —Katie Cornell