Critics' Picks: Skream & Benga, Black Milk, and more

Step into the Shabazz Palaces realm
Step into the Shabazz Palaces realm
Image by Leif Podhajsky/Original band photo by David Belisle

Shabazz Palaces


Whole Music Club, Tuesday 4.03

It's one thing to file Ishmael Butler alongside Kool Keith (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon) and Zev Love X (a.k.a. MF Doom) in the list of second-act hip-hop success stories who found new fame—and new audiences—under a revamped identity. But telling anyone peeling the cellophane off their just-bought copy of Blowout Comb in 1994 that the MC once known as Butterfly would go on to helm a group of Shabazz Palaces' caliber? That wouldn't be that much of a shock—even if you did throw in the fact that they're signed to Sub Pop. The suede-dagger flow and undercurrents of militant pride that informed his lyrics on classic Digable Planets cuts like "Black Ego" and "Rebirth of Slick" carry through to the finest moments of 2010's Black Up—only now, they're divorced from expectations, convention, and traditional structure, earning comparisons to the free-jazz vanguard of the early '60s. Simultaneously imposing and liberating, it's a sound and an ethos that pulls every avant-garde tendency of underground hip hop into focus just long enough to point out where it's darting away from. Instantly accessible it isn't, but Shabazz Palaces' modus operandi never loses sight of how much humanity and empathy exists inside the impulse to push those limits. 18+, $6-$12, 8 p.m. 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis; 612.626.7008. —Nate Patrin

Ben Kweller

Fine Line Music Cafe, Wednesday 3.28

All child prodigies grow up and most burn out, with only the lucky few maturing into capable adult talents that make it over the long haul. At age 30, Ben Kweller is now more than 14 years removed from the dizzying major label bidding war and late-night talk show performances that greeted his teenage band Radish; but the father of two still sounds like a fired-up and frustrated adolescent on his just-released sixth solo album, Go Fly A Kite. That's not meant to be taken as a diss. Kweller's always been at his best when filtering Weezer's adenoidal fury through a classic singer/songwriter lens, and after a brief awkward detour into traditional country and western on 2009's Changing Horses, he's back at the task with renewed fervor. Sure he's not exactly showing off any range, just plenty of mid-tempo power-pop gems broken up by the occasional loping power ballad, but as usual Kweller more than makes up in catchy melodicism whatever he lacks in innovation. With the Dig and Sleeper Agent, 18+, $18-$20, 7:30 p.m., 318 First Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.338.8100. —Rob Van Alstyne

Black Milk

7th Street Entry, Wednesday 3.28

It's been common for critics to refer to Curtis Cross as an heir apparent to J Dilla, the most recognizable precedent for Detroit producer/MCs with an ear for low-end, sample-chopping alchemy. It doesn't hurt that Black Milk reps Motor City's sense of civic pride so faithfully that acknowledging the influence of Dilla and his group Slum Village is a given. But he's never been content to simply pay homage to influences; he builds on them, as revealed in the mutation from the golden age classicism of 2007's Popular Demand to the funk-gone-digital thump of 2008's Tronic to the psychedelic soul of 2010's Album of the Year. It's this kind of adventurousness that built him up to the point last year where he could do his thing with manic genius spitter Danny Brown (Black and Brown), then head over to Third Man and record live-band sessions with Jack White ("Brain"). He respects his precedents, but Black Milk knows how to do his own thing—and it turns out his own thing is anything. With the Tribe and Big Cats, J. Pinder and A.Dd+. 18+, $12-$15, 8 p.m. 701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.332.1775. —Nate Patrin


Cedar Cultural Center, Saturday 3.31

North Carolina trio Bowerbirds began life as an austere roots-music trio that rarely implemented more than three instruments—acoustic guitar, accordion, a marching-band style bass drum—to get their melodic point across. Now six years into their evolution, Bowerbirds spread their wings wide and soar to new orchestral heights on The Clearing, their third album. Recorded primarily at Bon Iver's April Base studio in Eau Claire, the album finds Bowerbirds' once simple, homespun folk balladry dressed to the nines, fleshed out with the likes of trombone, violin, cello, vibraphone, clarinet, and organ. The newly super-sized sound works in part because group frontman Phil Moore sings with increased zeal, his always pleasant but previously restrained tenor belting out with newfound flair. Longtime fans needn't worry about a similar sea change lyrically, as Moore is still obsessed with chronicling environmental decay and contemplating mortality. The end result is a set of surprisingly airy and joyful-sounding songs on highly weighty and downbeat subject matter. With Dry the River. All ages, $14, 7 p.m., 416 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.338.2674. —Rob Van Alstyne


Varsity Theater, Friday 3.31


London-based quintet Fanfarlo have always left themselves open to charges of pretentiousness. It's an unfortunate side effect of naming your band after a Baudelaire novella and breaking up high-profile New York City concerts with appearances by straitjacket-escaping performance artists. Their well-received 2009 debut, Reservoir, married the band's high-minded artistry to the expected orchestral-rock bells and whistles—greetings, musical saw!—taking their career to the verge of mainstream recognition (a.k.a. landing a spot on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack). Their long-in-the-making sophomore album, Rooms Filled With Light, is a far more interesting beast. Largely ditching its predecessor's over-reliance on swooning strings, Rooms is a wilder affair, focusing on twitchy rhythms and buoyant blasts of saxophone while still featuring plenty of anthemic choruses. With Gardens & Villa. 18+, $15, 7 p.m., 1308 Fourth St. SE, Minneapolis; 612.644.0222. —Rob Van Alstyne

Mind Spiders

Turf Club, Saturday 3.31

Mind Spiders may have started as a post-Marked Men solo gig, but quickly grew into a Denton, Texas, all-star group at their live shows. Following the release of their sophomore record, Meltdown, Mark Ryan and crew are hitting the road, rounding out the lineup with members of such Dirtnap faves as Bad Sports, High Tension Wires, and Uptown Bums. Their new release abandons all pretense of the solo gig, with the full band including two drummers to give a complex yet somewhat loose distinction. Mind Spiders, though, are no garage-pop clones. Spacey sci-fi, psychedelic guitars, and hints of shoegaze all subtly find their way into the fun, energetic rock that has a penchant for self-referential almost-theme songs. As serious as the artists involved may be, Mind Spiders keep it fun and loose. With Birthday Suits, the Slow Death, and Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band. 21+, $8, 9 p.m. 1601 W. University Av. St. Paul; 651.647.0486. —Loren Green

Skream & Benga

The Brick, Sunday 4.01

If you're looking to pinpoint that pivotal stretch where dubstep went from an offshoot subgenre of U.K. garage to its own force to be reckoned with, the list of essential 12-inch releases has to include 2003's "The Judgement." The collaborative A-side title track between Croydon cohorts Skream and Benga hit at crucial formative moments for the producers and the scene alike, and it still kills—all ghostly wails, growling liquid-rubber basslines, and a two-step backbone that toes the line between tense spaciousness and spine-rattling momentum. Both producers went on to continued success from there, tweaking their styles to fit the broadening parameters of the genre. Skream transitioned smoothly from the rudeboy swagger of his full-length 2006 debut to 2010's pop move-slash-'91 jungle throwback Outside the Box, with a grip of choice singles and fanbase-stoking freebie Skreamizm compilations pointing the way. Benga continued to refine his throttle-open heaviness through 2006's Newstep, then pushed it to the point of tightly wound, borderline-IDM brilliance on '08's Diary of an Afro Warrior. And when they finally got back to teaming up, they brought in cohort Artwork to form Magnetic Man, a certified supergroup whose eponymous 2010 album pulled off the rare dance-music feat of crossover without compromise (and helped break the fantastic Katy B in the process). Now that the idea of dubstep has been blown up into something bigger and more bombastic than anyone in 2003 could've imagined, this would be the ideal show to find out just where it all came from—and where it's all headed, too. 18+, $20, 8:30 p.m. 111 Fifth St. N., Minneapolis; 612.333.3422. —Nate Patrin

The Ting Tings

First Avenue Mainroom, Tuesday 4.02

Depicted as a pair of zombies on the cover of their sophomore album, Katie White and Jules De Martino almost seem to be expecting that Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia) would be critically received with all the savage gusto of a genuine visit from the living dead. The follow-up to the Ting Tings' infectious, hook-riddled 2008 debut, We Started Nothing, Nowheresville has been widely trashed as derivative and inept with a vacuous core largely devoid of hooks, melody, and lyrical sense. In other words, it would seem, nowheresville. Cue the conspiracy theorists, who note that the Tings apparently scrapped an essentially finished Nothing sequel because it relied on the same hit-oriented formula, or maybe strayed too far from it. Evidence may be in the lyrics to Nowhereville's "Hang It Up": "This is all about starting out again/Same old, same old/Never stay the same." In fact, the new album borrows from everywhere: new wave, dance pop, reggae, punkish rock, rap. Hooks may be slippery and elusive, but do lurk about, and despite the vitriol, there are decent moments: the undeniable groove of "Give It Back," "Soul Killing" minus the invasive squeak, the moody "Silence." Meanwhile, White still treads a fine line between pouty intrigue and utter annoyance, sometimes in the same song ("Guggenheim"). But the nagging questions persist: whether it's cynically contrived, perversely unlikeable, ironic, self-sabotage, good, bad, or Nothing after all. 18+, $22-$25, 7:30 p.m. 701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.338.8388. —Rick Mason

Image by Leif Podhajsky/Original band photo by David Belisle
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