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SONIC REDUCER "My father told me never to play covers. It's such a hole to fall into. People want to hear stuff they've heard a thousand times. Especially white people they all want to be safe, and covers just make them feel safe."
Larkin Grimm takes the briefest breath, standing beside a frozen creek next to a cowboy trading post in South Dakota's Badlands. The ice is starting to melt, and the 27-year-old songwriter's on a roll, talking 'bout her hippie parents they met here, her father who once lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, and later played southern rock to "toothless hillbilly women" with an Appalachian bar band to support the family ("A huge transition from meditating all day") as well has her studies at Yale, studies in shamanism, pals Lightning Bolt, and the Providence, R.I., noise scene she emerged from.
"My music doesn't do that. I'm trying to do a thing where I make people feel safe and at the same time say the most brutal things I can."
She shares the name of the darkest of yarn-spinners, her music rests on a foundation of folk and acoustic instrumentation, and her sensibility despite her queer punk past clearly stems from the spiritual quests of her footloose forebears. But Grimm's one of a kind even if her soul is old, she's been here before, and she may be here once again.
Just listen to her new album, Parplar (Young God, 2008). Songs like "Be My Host" may bear the folk-pop fragrance of Joni Mitchell's early Beat-girl rambles and tunes like "Durge" may ring with the bared-skull minor-key drama of Kurt Cobain writing for a Balkan women's choir. But listen closely to the lyrics of such songs as "Hope for the Hopeless": "I turned my head against the wicked world you're in / So there you are I hope you are suffering / I hope you feel the hopelessness and you can't bear the cost / of being an ungrateful shit," she intones. "... I hope the wind has marked your face and you don't have a hope / You're drifting free above the ground / Gently stretching out your rope." Beyond black, yet often alight with an austere beauty. Grimm a veteran of Dirty Projectors (a band she met at Yale and describes as "what happens when you have an egomaniac trying to control everyone") knows how to channel the most intense of spirits.
Parplar revolves around female sexuality. "I was going through a period of my life where I was having a gender crisis, and I wasn't sure if I was a woman or not, but I was starting to get really attracted to men, which was new," she explains. The album was intended to fund her gender reassignment surgery. "I had this plan: get a dick and cut off my breasts."
But then she ended up writing all these tunes about women, including "other women who were having major crises at the time: Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, and Beyonce. All these women are fascinating and intelligent, and they're in everybody's mind, and they're archetypes, and we've built them all up so much. They're sort of like virgins that have been thrown into the volcano. We've torn them apart," says Grimm, believing Spears "reached enlightenment for a second. When she shaved her head she was turning her back on materialism. But her publicist and record label wouldn't allow her to go through the process of rebirth and forced her back into slavery, and it's tragic, you know. I kind of wrote this record for her, in a way."
Sisterhood and brotherhood is powerful: Grimm now hopes to find other kids who lived in the SF-originated Holy Order of MANS commune, which she characterizes as "a co-ed monastic order of energy healers." "We had a very magical childhood, which we lost," she says. After a near-suicide at Yale, she says, "I just live fully all the time. Don't let anybody tell me what to do. Coincidences and amazing things happen to me all the time." For instance, she recently created an altar with a human skull and twinkling lights in her car. "I felt like it wasn't magical enough we need feathers! Five minutes later I see a dead pheasant on the road. Suddenly I realize everything is connected. As soon as you lose your sense of isolation, anything is possible."
Fri/6, 8 p.m., $20
Swedish American Hall
2174 Market, SF
STICKING WITH THE TINDERSTICKS
What is this mysterious thing called a Hungry Saw (Constellation), the title of the Tindersticks' new album and one of its tracks? "It's one of quite a few songs on this record that I don't understand totally and I don't really want to!" Tindersticks vocalist Stuart A. Staples says almost jubilantly from France, where he now lives. "It's something that drives me and hurts me at the same time." Staples has been on an intuitive tip of late especially after the band's last disc, Waiting for the Moon (Beggars Banquet, 2003), which took a year and a half to make. With the addition of new drummer Thomas Belhom and bassist Dan McKinna, and a directive to record in eight days, the group have come up with a fresh slice of Tindersticks tunefulness almost breezy ("The Flicker of a Little Girl") and moodily somber ("Mother Dear") in turns. As for that tremulous instrument called Staples' voice, he believes the best is yet to come: "I think it's always changing and always growing," he says, citing French vocalist Léo Ferré as a discovery that raised his game. "I think it's something that really drives me, finding my voice. I don't think it's arrived."
Sun/15, 8 p.m., $28. Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com 
IN THE SPIRIT
Kanye West took a Shine to his "American Boy" collaborator, whereas the Knowles scion attempted to break with the pop mold with her second CD. Thurs/5, 8 p.m., $35$50. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com 
Choral harmonies and impressionistic orchestrations rise from the Copenhagen, Denmark outfit. Sun/8, 9 p.m., $10$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com