Madi Diaz

Madi Diaz's new album Phantom is a break-up record, but you'd never know that from a casual listen - and that's just what the singer/songwriter was aiming for.

"I'm trying to push past the break-up-record thing," she said in a recent phone interview in advance of her November 21 record-release show at Rozz-Tox. "I'm hoping the music pulls it past the cold, harsh idea of a break-up record. ... That's kind of my favorite thing, that juxtaposition: the very dry, grounded, present lyrics with a kind of uplifting, soaring musical bed. That's what I was striving for with the record."

Both Diaz and Christian Lee Hutson - who will be returning to the Quad Cities for the Daytrotter.com show with Diaz - are promoting records whose idiosyncratic pop textures mask darker emotional content.

Drew Starenko in his downtown-Davenport studio.

The realization, Drew Starenko said, came while building a home addition by himself in the early 1990s.

He was in his early 30s, he said, and "I was lugging these sheets of plywood up to this roof, and I just kind of stepped back after that and ... said, 'When I'm 50, 55, I don't think I'm going to be able to do this sort of thing.'"

The construction work was never his intended career path, although he'd been doing carpentry since the age of 16.

But if carpentry wasn't a viable long-term occupation, what could he do?

Starenko knew he wanted to work with his hands. He had pre-med and art degrees from Augustana College, and a master of fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

He had been lured back to the Quad Cities because of some teaching work, but local institutions of higher education weren't hiring full-time art faculty. He had a young family and didn't want to uproot it in pursuit of teaching jobs. And he wanted to stay in the Midwest - which provided much of the inspiration for his art.

So he decided to put his pre-med degree to work - and chose to become a nurse instead of a physician's assistant because it was a quicker path to a job. "I had a daughter and a family," he said.

And nursing, he figured, would also give him time to focus on painting.

From that fundamentally practical choice, a remarkable career began. Starenko is a Certified Registered Nurse First Assistant rather than a surgeon, and he didn't design the equipment or perfect the technique that together make recovery from heart-bypass surgery much easier for patients these days. But he is a local medical pioneer who has directly or indirectly improved hundreds of lives across the globe.

The band Darlingside drew its name from an old chestnut for writers - the instruction to "murder your darlings." (Killing your darlings would be "darlingcide," which is made softer and more enticingly opaque as Darlingside.)

All the band members met at Massachusetts' Williams College, at which they heard that advice in class.

Guitarist/singer Don Mitchell explained it this way in a recent phone interview promoting his group's November 12 show at the Redstone Room: "You should be willing to get rid of the things that were initially what made you excited about the work, because those ... tend to be the clever ones; those ... tend to be the most indulgent moments. You might need ... to blow up the song in order to put it back together and continue to move forward."

That's an important lesson for songwriting, but it also applied to this band as a whole, which has over the past year-plus reinvented itself - shifting from an atmospheric, earnest rock band to a folk outfit.

Halloween is an opportunity for people to try new identities, so it's appropriate that the Quad Cities-based band The Candymakers is marking the release of Ridiculicious with a pair of All Hallows' Eve shows at the Redstone Room.

Yes, the group will be wearing costumes. But Ridiculicious is such a radical departure from its predecessor that it feels like an entirely new - freer and better - ensemble. Using the same musical building blocks, the band has transformed itself largely by stripping the material of any pretense of nutritional value; one could say it's found its wheelhouse by sticking to the spirit of its name.

Sheryl WuDunnThe 2009 book Half the Sky is filled with stories that are heartbreaking and inspiring - and often both. The Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn gives you precisely what you'd expect from a book subtitled Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There are lots of anecdotes supporting the idea that women across the globe face horrific violence, discrimination, and marginalization. That's countered by personal stories that provide hope for change. And both are supported by statistics and academic studies.

"We think that one of the greatest moral challenges of our time is the gender inequality and the brutality that many women and girls face around the world because of their gender," said WuDunn - who will present a lecture version of the book on October 21 at St. Ambrose University - in a recent phone interview. "We also think one of the most effective ways to address a lot of the inequality is through educating girls and bringing them into the formal labor force ... . And we talk about a lot of these issues by telling stories of women who have been facing these challenges, and of other women and men who have come up with solutions."

But the book is also surprising - in ways that are both very small and very big.

Muddy Ruckus. Photo by J. Elon Goodman.

By design, the opening three tracks of Muddy Ruckus' self-titled debut are meant as an introduction.

But it might be more accurate to say that they're a reintroduction - particularly for the Quad Cities. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ryan Flaherty hails from these parts, and the album and a September 19 performance at Rozz-Tox will show what he's been up to in the decade-plus since he left.

Bruce Rauner changed my mind on term limits. Probably not in the way he intended, but given my longstanding dislike of them, it's still quite an accomplishment.

The Republican nominee for Illinois governor has a television ad promoting term limits in which he pings his November opponent, Governor Pat Quinn. "A half-million people signed petitions to put term limits on the [November 2014] ballot," Rauner says. "Illinois voters overwhelmingly support term limits: Democrats, Republicans, and independents. But Pat Quinn, Mike Madigan, and the Springfield crowd don't care what you think. They'll say or do anything to keep power. They let term limits get kicked off the ballot, but come November, it's our turn to kick them out of office."

It's a smart play to emphasize support for an ever-popular reform - and also disingenuous beyond the vague claim of "let[ting] term limits get kicked off the ballot." Quinn has been a proponent of term limits for decades. And the June court ruling - which higher courts have let stand - removing the referendum from the ballot cited an Illinois Supreme Court decision from 1994, which dealt with a similar term-limit initiative by ... Pat Quinn.

But it was the Madigan reference in Rauner's ad that got me thinking - and got me re-thinking term limits.

Given her foibles, Ruby Kendrick's decision to give up visual art for music seems like a brambled path.

In a phone interview promoting her September 7 performance at Rozz-Tox (under her band name Ruby the RabbitFoot), she said she used to be "terrified" to play live.

She loves pop music but writes these lyrics: "People with nice homes / Shouldn't play with matches. / They'll burn it right down, / Tear their hearts right up. / And all that's left in the middle / Are some smoky lungs."

Because many of the songs are deeply personal, they sometimes resurrect pain in live performance.

And in a business in which the release of new material often comes years after a song is written, she's admittedly impatient. Talking about her songwriting process, Kendrick said: "If it doesn't happen immediately, I'm just not interested."

Despite all that - and even though she and her family knew she'd be a visual artist - she ditched that assumed calling in college to pursue life as a performing songwriter. (She still works in the visual arts, making her own videos and album artwork.)

It's long been an article of faith with me that the seemingly perpetual growth in the number of state-sponsored gambling outlets is poor public policy. Common sense says that the amount of money people will spend on these games has a ceiling - one that we've almost certainly reached by now.

If that's correct, then further expansion of legalized gambling is a fool's errand, as the money generated by it won't increase meaningfully. Once gambling has reached a saturation point in a region, revenues will just get shifted from gaming company to gaming company and state to state and local government to local government.

But like all articles of faith, I had no proof for my hypothesis. So I decided to test it, and the Quad Cities market seemed like an excellent laboratory.

What is now the Isle of Capri casino in Bettendorf opened in April 1995 - making us a three-casino community. (I'll refer to the casinos by their present names throughout this article.) We now have almost two decades of gaming information with the three-casino marketplace, and a handful of variables allow us to see what happened here when this happened there: the December 2008 move of Jumer's from downtown Rock Island to Interstate 280; the recession that hit in 2007-8; new casino competitors in eastern Iowa in 2006 and 2007; and the 2012 introduction of video-gambling machines in Illinois outside of casinos.

What I found didn't exactly support my hypothesis of a Quad Cities gambling pie with a fixed size. Rather, the data suggest there are ways to add new customers to the local gambling market - but that the pie has nonetheless been shrinking for a decade.

I've written about four releases from Sean Ryan over the past six years - as a solo singer/songwriter, as part of Jim the Mule, and as the leader of the Dawn (and Sean Ryan & the Dawn). I've always liked his singing voice - a mature blend of authority, precision, and expression. But with much of his work as a solo act and bandleader I've found the combination of standard Americana arrangements and plain-spoken writing dully professional - not vivid enough to avoid the generic.

So the new six-track Waiting on the Storm album from the Dawn came as a pleasant surprise - in particular the expansive rocker "Bring It All Home," a forceful jam that oozes personality and life and has a clear if winding path. An album full of similar songs would quickly become tiresome, but as a startling change-up from Ryan's past work, it reverberates through the entire record.

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