Caribou's Dan Snaith

Dan Snaith sounds tired of answering questions about math.

He comes from a family of mathematicians; he earned a Ph.D. in the field in 2005. And because he records and performs (under the name Caribou) electronic music, journalists (this one included) ask him a lot of questions about the relationship between his primary academic and musical pursuits. They both involve computers, don't they?

Snaith -- who will be playing with his band at a Daytrotter show at RIBCO on Saturday, June 5 -- said there are some similarities. But not many. "Being able to do what you want ... is kind of an intuitive process," he said in a phone interview last week. "In both mathematics and in music, you kind of have to use some gut-level intuition to piece things together. [But] I think they're very different in many ways."

What's evident listening to the music of Caribou is that Snaith's electronic instruments are largely tools, not ends. There are certainly electronic sounds, but the songs sound organic and feel handmade, and his singing voice is ethereal, warm, and emotive -- a perfect offset to any digital coolness. Put differently, there's nothing mathematical about Caribou's songs.

Laura Veirs

The leanness of singer/songwriter Laura Veirs' new album, July Flame, was born of considerations both practical and artistic.

On the logistical side, her band "fell apart" since she moved to Portland, Oregon, she said in a phone interview this week. So one goal with this set of songs was "getting back to the root of just a guitar and a voice and seeing what I could do with that again."

Her last album -- 2007's Saltbreakers -- was "really heavily dependent on everybody else being there for the songs to work," she said. Crafting tunes that could be performed in a solo setting meant she could tour the album on the cheap, and with a band if she had the money. (When she plays her show on Monday at Huckleberry's in Rock Island, she'll be bringing her band.)

But on an artistic level, "I really like sparse music that still hits you in the gut and does a lot with a little."

Dr. Dog

To understand some of what makes Dr. Dog sound like it was preserved in amber in the mid-1960s, listen to singer/guitarist/songwriter Scott McMicken talk about drums.

The quintet -- performing a show at RIBCO on February 9 -- has a new record (Shame, Shame) due out April 6, and for its sixth studio album it finally enlisted a producer, holing up in a New York studio for nearly a month.

"The real crux of the problem in New York was the drums," McMicken said last month. On previous Dr. Dog albums, which regularly sound 40-plus years old, "the drums aren't really dominant ... very muted."

But on the New York recordings, the drums had a modern microphone configuration -- overkill, in McMicken's view. "The real problem was that you were hearing all 16 microphones at once. I knew if I could put my hands on that console and turn off 75 percent of the mics, we'd probably be getting to hear a really cool drum sound."

Freedy JohnstonIf you followed the career of Freedy Johnston, you might wonder what happened to him after 2001, when Elektra released his Right Between the Promises album.

Until Rain on the City (out today), Johnston released a live record and a CD of covers, but the man behind the 1994 single "Bad Reputation" -- who was Rolling Stone's songwriter of year that year, and whose major-label discography included albums produced by Butch Vig and T-Bone Burnett -- doesn't want to talk about the more than eight years between albums of original material.

"That's why we put it in the bio," he said last week. "I didn't want it to be talking about it every time, rehashing the same story."

In that official record-label bio, Johnston -- who will perform a show at RIBCO on January 23 -- is vague: "It takes a while to re-adjust one's priorities and get back on track after working with the big budget that the majors give you. I went through issues with the IRS, had a relationship go south and a touring vehicle grind to a halt, but through it all I never gave up writing and gigging whenever possible."

In our interview, Johnston didn't elaborate much on the specifics of his personal life. (In addition to living in Austin, Texas, in Nashville, and in New York, he did live in downtown Rock Island in 2002 and 2003 and married a woman from the Quad Cities.) But he did discuss his difficulty completing songs.

"I used to have no problem writing songs before I had a major-label deal," he said. "All of a sudden it was really hard to finish the damn things. ... Now I'm on the other side of it. ... Maybe I just needed to reset my clock. I'm working better now than I ever was."

Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers. Photo by Chris Becker.

Shilpa Ray has a voice with the unpolished force of PJ Harvey and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O on their early recordings, and she sometimes unleashes an uninhibited bluesy growl. Yet she's also capable of reining in her vocals to suit the song, as when she sounds (intentionally) a little sloppy/slurry/drunk on "Beating St. Louis" but also manages to nail a passage of higher notes.

She has a testimonial from the king of dramatic singing, Nick Cave: "She has a great voice; she writes great songs, great lyrics."

And Shilpa Ray - who will be playing with her backing band the Happy Hookers on January 16 at RIBCO - also plays a portable harmonium, a reed organ she picked up while studying northern-Indian classical singing from ages six through 17. (The instrument sounds a lot like an accordion.)

Mieka Pauley. Photo by Josh Rothstein.

Listening to Mieka Pauley play and sing "All the Same Mistakes" in her session released earlier this year, it's hard to imagine somebody who at one point loathed her music.

Using just her voice and an acoustic guitar, she is defiant and forceful yet also surprisingly supple, muscular but precise. The version that appears on her 2008 album Elijah Drop Your Gun is prettier and more delicate and takes advantage of her full band, but the Daytrotter version smolders, builds, and ignites.

Yet in early 2007, Pauley said that she felt ensnared by that voice-and-guitar combo. She had what she called "a very sad epiphany" while looking in a bathroom mirror: "What am I doing?"

Andrew W.K.I have no certainty that the person whom I interviewed late last month is the real Andrew W.K., or the original Andrew W.K., or even that Andrew W.K. as a human being (as opposed to an entertainment entity) exists.

But the guy who called me introduced himself as Andrew W.K. and talked a good game, and he'll presumably be the man performing as Andrew W.K. at a benefit show Saturday at RIBCO. So we'll go with it.

"When someone says you're not a real person, or you don't exist, or that your life is a lie, that's a very strange feeling," he said.

If this sounds a little odd, you've likely not encountered Andrew W.K. I first saw the man on Saturday Night Live in 2002, and the spectacle was so bizarre that it had to be a joke -- some mix of Andy Kaufman's dry meta-comedy and Spinal Tap's sharp musical satire. I was fascinated and bought his record I Get Wet. My wife considered divorcing me.

Harper SimonRolling Stone began its positive four-sentence review this way: "At 37, Harper Simon apparently doesn't mind taking after his pops, Paul, who used to showcase the young, guitar-playing Harper when he was touring on Graceland."

On the one hand, that's mean. Living up to a legacy is tough enough -- just ask anybody with an older sibling -- but it's especially hard when that legacy belongs to a revered pop icon. And can Harper help that he bears a facial resemblance to his father, or that his singing voice and phrasing sound awfully familiar? Of course not.

On the other hand, he's asking for it. Paul Simon is credited as a co-writer on three tracks on Harper Simon, plays guitar on another, and "Wishes & Stars" has the gorgeous light harmonies his father specializes in. The jokey "Tennessee" puts the elder's trademark wit in a country context.

Yet it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Harper Simon -- performing a show on Monday at Huckleberry's -- based on his genes. His debut, released last month, is a quietly adventurous and accomplished work, spanning genres and generations. Employing senior-citizen Nashville session players with intimidating credits (Dylan, Cash, Presley, McCartney, and many more) alongside his contemporaries, Simon has made an album specific to its primary singer, all over the place and yet surprisingly cohesive. It's tight and concise but feels relaxed, natural, and easy.

Sondre LercheThe singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche speaks of his audience like a pool of friends and acquaintances -- a blob that's ever-changing.

With each album, he said, "you're gaining someone, and you're losing someone. ... You're going to be reunited with someone you met in the past, and somebody else is going to take some time off and not be a part of what you do, and then also someone brand-new is going to enter the field and be excited about what you do. ... I like that idea."

That speaks to a healthy attitude toward the consequences of his artistic exploration, as well as the fickle taste of the public, but it also reflects the intimate nature of his adventurous, manicured, instrumentally omnivorous pop music, which seems to foster a relationship between artist and audience.

Lerche should be right at home at his show on Wednesday at Huckleberry's, with the small venue offering him plenty of opportunity for that give-and-take.

Lissie. Photo by Andrew Calder.

It might be lemons and lemonade and all that, but Rock Island native Lissie Maurus said she's pleased that it's taken her this long to reach this point in her musical career.

Maurus (who performs under the name Lissie) spent half a decade in Los Angeles and, for the most part, made her living from music. But when she comes back to the Quad Cities for a show next week headlined by Sondre Lerche (see article here), she'll be supporting her first proper release.