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No More Mush

Last month, Details magazine crowned Imperial Drag "Spacehog without the gags," an assessment that was meant to be a compliment -- though it's unlikely the band took it as such, seeing as it says more about Imperial Drag's shortcomings than its strengths.

After all, the Los Angeles quartet lacks both Spacehog's exhibitionistic sense of humor and the winking irony required to steal from the past as brazenly as they do. It's also true that a number of now-defunct bands (Redd Kross, Pooh Sticks) have already logged plenty of overtime affixing a clever, mildly cynical face to '70s pop-culture atrocities. Their reward? The honor of being ignored by just about everyone but the critics.

Imperial Drag, on the other hand, has a better than average chance of avoiding the wastebasket. Their sound is "heavy glam" -- glitter rock with a gritty, metallic aftertaste. Drag leaders Roger Manning (keyboards) and Eric Dover (lead vocals, guitar) had more than their fill of bubble-gum melodies and breezy, Beatles-cum-Queen harmonies with their last employer, Jellyfish, a short-lived San Francisco outfit. The two musicians had begun working together even before Jellyfish, when Dover joined up with Manning's 1993 band as its touring guitarist. By the time they formed Imperial Drag, both were intent on working a tougher, more devious angle than had been possible with Jellyfish's lightweight, mushy and derivative material.

The fruit of their efforts, Imperial Drag, documents, often disconcertingly, a band straining hard to make a shrewd first impression, and avoid being ... well, lightweight, mushy and derivative. But eight months on a tour bus has given Imperial Drag time to come into its own. From what I witnessed at the Abyss a few months ago, that roadwork has done wonders for the band's tunes. Stripped of their cluttered studio identities, Imperial Drag's sexually ambiguous rant "Boy or a Girl," which apes trash talk shows, and "Zodiac Sign," which manages to diss both astrology and the singles scene, rock with a ferocity only alluded to on CD. It's a live approach somewhat akin to Steppenwolf mauling the Partridge Family theme, with grimy guitars figuring as prominently in the attack as cheesy synthesizers and other retro accessories. Just like that, with few props and little visual fanfare, Imperial Drag showed it can restore a skeptical audience's faith in everything '70s. And now they're back to do it all over again.

-- Hobart Rowland
Imperial Drag opens for the Nixons Thursday, October 3, at Westpark Entertainment Center, 5000 Westpark. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12.25. For info, call 629-3700.

Marcus Roberts -- You might think that a former member of a quartet headed by Wynton Marsalis, the man who's made himself the protector of all things jazz related, would show more respect for a classic such as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" than to tear it apart and put it back together nightly before audiences across America. But then again, part of respect in jazz has to do with improvising around the basics of music you admire, and nobody has done that better in recent years than Roberts. A pianist who won first prize at the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, a six-year member of the Marsalis Quartet and the first jazz player to have his initial three recordings reach number one on Billboard's traditional jazz chart, Roberts has built up an impressive resume at the tender age of 33. But nothing has been quite as impressive as his reworking of Gershwin's "Rhapsody," the centerpiece of his Portraits in Blue tour. Like all good improvisation, it makes you hear the Gershwin piece brand-new -- quite a feat for such a warhorse -- while at the same time reminding you what was so impressive about it in the first place. At Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street, at 8 p.m. Friday, October 4. Tickets are $10 to $40. 227-ARTS. (Mitchell J. Shields)

Trout Fishing in America -- It's no big secret that Trout Fishing in America has a soft spot for Houston. Though the acoustic duo's now based in Arkansas, its roots are here, alongside some of its most devoted fans. With an impeccable sense of melody, sense of humor and boisterous live shows, they've earned followers from nursery school through nursing homes; their much-hailed children's releases feature coy, sophisticated playroom romps, while their adult-aimed CDs, such as the new Reel Life, address (however discreetly) more grown-up vices -- sex, romance, cigarettes, sleeping late -- within a charming musical context that's equal parts slick country, intimate folk and wide-eyed pop. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday, October 4. Tickets are $12, $17.50 and $24. 869-8427. (H.R.)

Cesaria Evora -- Just when you thought there were no more truly gorgeous female voices left, along comes a fiftysomething, barefoot singer from the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Senegal, named Cesaria Evora. Evora is a balladeer who works in a subdivision of world music termed morna. Marked by its minor-key folk songs of longing and nostalgia, morna is sung in a dialect known as kriolu and backed by acoustic guitars, violins, accordions and occasional rhythmic hand claps. Some critics have dubbed Evora's music Cape Verde's version of the blues, an oversimplification that falls far short of the mark. And while Evora is traveling with a translator to help with interviews during her North American tour, there's no need for an interpreter when it comes to understanding her sumptuous sounds. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 9 p.m. Saturday, October 5. Tickets are $15.50, $25.50 and $29.50. 869-8427. (Greg Barr

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