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IIIrd Tyme Out; VPN

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Who: IIIrd Tyme Out
What: "Back to the Mac"
Where: Manchester High School, Saturday, Nov. 17
Why: This five-man band picks with the best. Add stunning harmony arrangements and you have one of the most powerful forces on today's bluegrass scene. Sure, its members sing about heaven, mom and broken hearts. But they do it with such grace and dynamic sensibility that it's no wonder the group has won the International Bluegrass Music Association's best vocal group award seven times. Recorded live, the set pulls from a wide range of influences, including traditional tunes such as "Lost John," rearranged country songs, a tribute to Bill Monroe and tunes by contemporary masters such as J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson. The pace is well-planned as witnessed when the torrid tempo of the gospel tune "When My Time Comes to Go" slips elegantly into a sparse arrangement of "Drifting Too Far from the Shore." Each player gets time to step out into the spotlight with his instrument and the whole recording shines with laid-back yet tight sheen. Forget the band's cute name. You don't have to be a big bluegrass fan to appreciate this group's instrumental and vocal talents. Traditional with a twist, the easygoing charms of this IIIrd Tyme Out effort will leave you wanting more. — Ames Arnold

What: VPN
What: "For Nearby Stars" (Evil Teen)
Where: Hole in the Wall, Tuesday, Nov. 13
Why: Slightly overproduced and slightly oversung by Austin Hughes, VPN's new album "For Nearby Stars" is slightly too good to be loved by the cynical phonophile snob, but he can at least like it.

The name means very pleasant neighbor. It was an espionage code meaning "friends of the communist party," and it's supposed to convey the dark undertones of this group's sound. But dark undertones and maybe an odd note or two are exactly what this group lacks.

VPN may remind you of the late, great Pixies, who perfected this type of off-the-wall pop with larger-than-life hooks (especially on "Sleepwalking," which sounds suspiciously like the Pixies' "Dig for Fire"). But VPN doesn't attain the dizzying heights of pop-culture deconstruction that made the Pixies so delicious.

VPN does write strong songs with consistency, though. "For Nearby Stars" contains many would-be hits, all propelled by Hughes eccentric vocal style and Eddie Gormley's excellently understated drumming. They just lack that weirdness factor that would distinguish them from every other good rock band out there. — W.M.

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