Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Pere Ubu, Blue Mother Tupelo, Kentucky Headhunters

The Kentucky Headhunters finally release a live album, nineteen years later, and it’s a winner.

A sad note to start today’s column: Scott Bar Mortiz, of Scotland Barr and The Slow Drags, has died from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 44. I never met him, but when someone’s music becomes a part of the soundtrack of your own life, you feel a connection; then when that person is gone — especially much too young — you feel the loss. We feel it here at the Indie Round-Up. Four songs from the band’s upcoming CD have been released, with Scott’s final recorded vocals, available for download at their website. Here’s “Rasputin and Me”:
Pere Ubu, Long Live Pere Ubu!

Pere Ubu’s music has always been theatrical, so it’s only fitting that Dave Thomas & Co. have finally created a score for the classic Absurdist play Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, the play that gave the band its name. I hadn’t seen a production of Ubu Roi since college, in the early ’80s – the same time I discovered the band Pere Ubu. But despite all the time gone by, I decided to simply listen to the album without refreshing my memory of the play, to experience it the way most listeners would. And it’s a blast.

There are several different voices, and a good bit of talking, amidst the garage-y noise and grainy serio-silliness. It is a play after all — one that inspired riots back in 1896. This music won’t have you breaking store windows. But Pere Ubu’s unique sonic sensibility might just inspire you to look at the world in a slightly different way, finding color, as they do, in infinite shades of grey. And because of the storyline, listening to this album feels as much like reading as it does hearing music. No Kindle required. Or eyes, for that matter.

Blue Mother Tupelo, Heaven & Earth

Blue Mother Tupelo is husband-and-wife team Ricky and Micol Davis, Nashville-based singer-songwriters who favor a slightly fuzzed-out sound and hypnotic, often dark guitar arrangements. Even more than Ricky’s thick, Gregg Allman-ish vocal tone, that sonic sensibility places them in a half-retro, half-timeless place. Both are fine singers, but what they do with their voices in the studio is important as well; after the straight-ahead repetition of the country-rock opener, “Always Lookin’,” Micol’s distant-sounding voice on the grave title track recalls the effects Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac used to use to get that faraway, slightly scary sound. The duo’s bluesy side comes to the fore on a medley of the original one-chord drone, “Give It Away,” and an acoustic cover of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Hard Times,” where Micol sounds like a very early Janis Joplin, and Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band jump on for the ride.

Don’t expect a lot of the typical verse-chorus-verse-bridge forms here; this is more elemental stuff. Even Micol’s “The War,” a fully realized and arranged song, doesn’t finesse anything: “Don’t forget me. I’m coming home from the war.” “Goin’ Down Midnight” has that raunchy, apocalyptic flavor the Rolling Stones did so well in their country music period; but listen to the lyrics: it’s just a “let’s party” song.

The Davises have a nice way with lyrics. “I’ve been down and my cool is gone,” they harmonize in the beautiful “Wandering Soul.” Then after the mood lightens for “Tupelo,” things cloud up again for the bluesy drone of Micol’s “Ramblin’ Train,” which stresses Rick’s strong, moody guitar work. (He also covers drums and bass and more, while Micol handles keyboards and various guests contribute banjo, violin and the like.)

Some of the tracks on the second half of the disc aren’t as strong as the excellent stuff in the first batch, song-wise, but everything sounds top-notch. Ricky’s humble singing of the Jesse Winchester cover “Biloxi” is an island of calm – until things blow up satisfyingly at the end.

The songs that work least well for me are the love songs, interestingly enough. Fortunately, happy couple though they may be, the Davises (the female half especially) seem to have a sharp edge of darkness in their musical soul, more than enough to boil up a cauldron of music that rocks down deep.

Kentucky Headhunters, The Kentucky Headhunters Live at the Agora Ballroom

I sure did love the two Kentucky Headhunters CDs I had back in the early ’90s. (Still have ’em, come to think of it.) I never got to see the band live, though, and they never released a live recording – until now. Is it country? Rock? Blues? The Headhunters’ classic Southern rock encompassed all three. From “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “She’s About a Mover” to “Oh Lonesome Me” and their hit “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” with a detour to the “Crossroads,” this disc is loaded with live, tight, high-energy cuts from a 1990 concert. “Davy Crockett” was still in the future, but the Headhunters were certainly at the height of their powers as a live band. Take this one to the gym and smoke it.