A friend says everyone needs one Ani record, but nobody should bother with two. This discounts the achievement of the first half of DiFranco's career, when she achieved power and clarity over a half-dozen discs. That she said the same shit on each didn't matter. What did matter was that the force accumulated -- the stinging pluck-strum, the dimensions of her yowl, the effortless conflation of the personal and the political. But following Dilate in 1996, which announced her as human even as she brushed something grander, DiFranco has doodled instead of striven, trying on ska bands and mood pieces and "funk" explorations good only for encouraging arrhythmic hippie dances. It's a shame that on this, the most recent of her annual releases, she says nothing new and little well. At first Knuckle Down seems encouraging. The title track lives up to its promised retrenchment; "Studying Stones" is as gorgeous as -- and wiser than -- "Letter to a John" (from 1994's Out of Range); and on "Manhole," her complaints lift toward a shout-along universality. A few peaks follow, but much of the restis morose, even featureless. It's laborious work, but it's a start. Pray that Ani '06 remembers that knuckling down is the job of the artist, not the listener. -- Alan Scherstuhl
Saturday, February 5, at the Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas, 713-230-1600.
Walls of Jericho, with Bury Your Dead, Full Blown Chaos and Premonitions of War
In Biblical times, seven priests blowing ram's-horn trumpets could reduce the city-encompassing walls of Jericho to rubble. The hard-core quartet Walls of Jericho is made of sturdier stuff. Using trembling-earth drum thumps and riffs that hit like a wrecking-ball hailstorm, this band can vaporize venues. Candace Kucsulain injects her confident vocals with venom, singing like a savage siren who has given up the angelic act and started gloating about her shipwrecked victims. "All Hail the Dead," the title track from the group's recent release, races with violent velocity until Kucsulain unleashes an a cappella screech that could startle a corpse. Equally aggressive opening act Bury Your Dead named every track on its latest album after a Tom Cruise film. That devotion doesn't extend to tailoring the tunes to the movies' moods. "Legend" isn't a prog-rock fantasy, "Top Gun" isn't beach- volleyball background fodder, "Risky Business" isn't old-time rock and roll, and "Vanilla Sky" isn't comprised of shrill, sour notes that never form a cohesive whole. Instead, Bury Your Dead goes full-throttle, Days of Thunder-style, with its brutal breakdowns serving as (mosh) pit stops. -- Andrew Miller
Friday, February 4, at Walter's, 4215 Washington Avenue, 713-864-2727.
Bands of this nature usually wear their cynicism on their sleeves and boast names ending with words like consortium or conspiracy. But Beep Beep is an exception. The group's silly, ineffectual name belies the screechy sass of Chris Hughes and the go-anywhere, do-anything guitar of Eric Bremberger. Not as vocally melodic as Q and Not U but similarly danceable, Beep Beep is intense and experimental (code for What the hell is going on?) with a feisty nature to back it all up. -- April Fleming
Saturday, February 5, at Mary Jane's Fat Cat, 4216 Washington, 713-869-5263.
Even though it manages not to sacrifice modernity, Fast Moving Cars, the third album from The Clarks, is quite the time warp. The Pittsburgh band keeps alive many of the musical values you thought grunge and modern rock swept away -- stuff like kicking tunes with pop hooks; clean, rich vocals and harmonies; and shimmering guitar riffs. While many critics dub this foursome "Midwest rock," The Clarks also flash '70s California vibes and a bit of Brit-pop in the mix, too. But the fact remains that right now, the Midwest loves them best -- back in the Steel City the band fills arenas and you can just imagine a full house flicking their Bics to sway-and-swing tunes like "Shimmy Low" and "Happy." -- Rob Patterson
Thursday, February 3, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease, 713-654-7846.
Yonder Mountain String Band
While all the paloozas and fests ponder the possibility of poor ticket sales again during the 2005 summer festival season, Bonnaroo is ready to continue its hedonistic run for a fourth year. With first-timers such as the Dave Matthews Band, Modest Mouse and Alison Krauss joining a bill packed with returnees Widespread Panic, Jack Johnson and Yonder Mountain String Band, this summer concert anomaly already looks like a winner. A winner, that is, if you can deal with 90,000 tour kids and trustafarians for three days in the Tennessee heat. For a more intimate experience, or maybe just a taste of the musical madness to come, a bite from Yonder Mountain's jamgrass sampler at the Meridian might just do the trick. -- John Kreicsberg
Friday, February 4, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717.
Julian New Year Party
Was your New Year's Eve a flop? If so, you're in luck: Houston's smallish-but-vibrant Eastern European community is offering you a second chance. Greg Harbar and his band, the Gypsies, have been hosting this bash for years, but this is the event's debut at the Meridian. Expect much the same this year: the Gypsies will draw from their staggering repertoire of Russian, Greek, Polish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Serbian and Romany tunes; there will be plenty of Slavic delicacies to devour; and oceans of vodka, ouzo and rough wine will be available to dampen the palate and enliven your dancing feet. -- John Nova Lomax
Sunday, February 6, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717.
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, / Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat." So wrote Rudyard Kipling, anyway, but it's obvious he never listened to a Harry Manx record. West Eats Meet, the latest CD from this Isle of Man-born/Canadian-based world musician, mixes traditional blues sounds and songs with an intoxicating blend of organic Indian beats and strings. The multi-instrumentalist Manx shifts gears several times -- he cranks out harmonica riffs in an authoritative reinterpretation of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" and wields a six-string banjo alongside Indian classical strings on a Mississippi masala-style remake of the venerable jug band classic "Sittin' on Top of the World." Best of all, even his heady instrumental chops and dazzling gift as a fusionist can't conceal the fact that with age, his breathy vocals have taken on a warmer quality not unlike those of Van Morrison or Jesse Winchester. -- Greg Barr
Tuesday, February 8, at Texas Arts Venue, 202 North Main Street, Conroe, 936-539-3456.
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