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Gone and Back Again

Uncle Tupelo
No Depression Still Feel Gone March 16-20, 1992 • (Legacy)

It’s been protested time and time again that Uncle Tupelo weren’t harbingers of any scene or movement—though that is how history seems to remember them. So that’s an argument I won’t take up here, except to say that, remembering Uncle Tupelo as part of any “scene” is denying what a unique and thorny band they actually were. The group’s true roots lay in the DIY mentality of the ’80s, and their immediate forbears and brethren were the indie bands who rolled through the Southeast and Midwest in battered Econoline vans throughout that decade. It’s no small coincidence they recorded a song called “D. Boon,” in memory of the late Minuteman leader; he was a friend and an ally. It’s hard to imagine the Uncle Tupelo of 1990 giving the time of day to talented, precocious twerp-from-hell Ryan Adams, the alt- country poster boy who would swim in their wake.

The Tupelo boys had the souls of ancient Ozark or Appalachian miners or preachers . . . or criminals. Theirs was a vernacular and spirit of old America, yet they were really just the work-boot-and-cigarette guys the jocks threw food at in the lunchroom. And while country music was certainly an influence, it could be argued that old folk music and hardcore riffs exerted a greater pull on the group’s early muse.

It can be a discomforting task looking down the barrel of your own music- listening past; you always wonder if the stuff you lived for “back then” will sound as good—or if memory has simply shrouded it in glory. This set of reissues (of the unforgivably out-of-print first three albums) quells those anxieties. The group’s debut, No Depression, still has all the visceral impact of yesterday: all the simmering, stormy sentiment; the gut-crunching guitar fury; and Jay Farrar’s ancient, craggy voice (rising out of a skinny kid with his bangs in his eyes). On “Before I Break,” the group want to put their arm around you and breathe the rye-sodden tale in your ear, but the guitars sound like they want to . . . hurt you. The title track, the old Carter Family nugget, a rather straightforward acoustic reading, is actually one of the least remarkable tracks here.

No Depression and Still Feel Gone were the group’s loudest, most furious albums, with the former more brutal and primitive than the latter. Still Feel Gone still has balls, but it also has more nuance. With the opener, “Gun,” Jeff Tweedy—no more simply the able sidekick—initiated a long and talented career trajectory, a trajectory that would culminate in three excellent albums with Wilco (and one album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that sagged under the post-rock peer pressure of his hip new friends in Chicago). The Jeff Tweedy who bursts from the speakers on “Gun” is the young and scrappy little brother who has caught up in a gleeful way. It’s one of Uncle Tupelo’s finest moments, from the ominous rumble that opens the track to the rough-and- tumble guitars to Tweedy’s joyful sackcloth rasp (“My heart, it was a gun/But it’s unloaded now . . . so don’t bother!”), which had yet to mellow into the milk-and-whiskey sound of his 30s.

The bright, chiming “Still Be Around” showed a more philosophical side to Farrar. It was the 12-step sequel to No Depression’s “Whiskey Bottle” (“Whiskey Bottle over Jesus/Not forever, just for now”). The clouds hadn’t fully lifted, but at least there was the possibility. But with “Punch Drunk,” Farrar was once again pummeling the listener with bruised blue-collar anguish and industrial-sized riffs as drummer Mike Heidorn, an unsung hero of early Tupelo, unloaded salvos. “Postcard” and “D. Boon” were simply brutal, pretty and loud. (Listening, it’s easy to remember exactly how loud and powerful these guys were live. They left a scar on my psyche—and tympanic membrane—matched only by wounds from My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana and AC/DC.)

The group’s next album, March 16-20, 1992, is their peak moment. Produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck (at his house in Athens, Ga.), it captures a live-on-the-back-porch vibe that countless rootsy acts would try to emulate in subsequent years. Here, Uncle Tupelo completely surrendered to their acoustic side, matching traditionals and nuggets culled from old folk anthologies seamlessly with their own tunes. This is a gritty, burnished world of worker anthems, atomic-power fear and bar fights. By now it was push-and-pull between Tweedy and Farrar: Each in the spotlight and each constantly one-upping the other, like sparring partners. For their next album, the widely available Anodyne, the group would move to a major label, and Heidorn (later to resurface in Son Volt with Farrar) would turn his attention to wife, baby and 9-to-5, ushering in a bunch of players who would eventually team up with Tweedy in Wilco—after Farrar, in his enigmatic fashion, just up and walked away.

The real treat here is that these albums are back in print and sound great in remastered form, and the bonus tracks don’t really add any missing pieces to the Uncle Tupelo puzzle. This has been a long time coming; it’s good to still feel gone.

—Erik Hage

Owl & the Pussycat
Owl & the Pussycat • (Kill Rock Stars)

Two nouns, an article and an ampersand: What we’ve got here is a new vintage duo. Northwest-based Owl is Lois Maffeo, who’s previously recorded five albums under her own name. Pussycat is from the Bay area, where he answers to the name Greg Moore and plays with a sibling in the accurately labeled outfit the Moore Brothers.

Owl & the Pussycat’s 13 songs are finely rendered miniatures, quietly sturdy, but arranged with sensibilities at once wise and fanciful. The tunes are built primarily around acoustic guitars, bolstered by the additional use of occasional piano and even flute (fear not all ye flute weary, it’s judiciously utilized and calls no attention to itself). The crowning flourishes throughout are the background and chorus vocals, which lift out of the surrounding quiet with surprise and delight, in often contrasting timbers and registers. Maffeo and Moore both write with personally idiosyncratic sensibilities—musical and lyrical—that draw more on pop, cabaret and soundtracks than folk music. There’s even an inherent pulsing to this percussion-free album, drawing on the rhythms of radio—rather than coffeehouse—fare. Owl & the Pussycat here offer up their whispered hit parade.

—David Greenberger

Tom Ross
The Rain Takes Off Her Clothes • (Mizazi)

Singer-guitarist-composer Tom Ross refers to his body of work as “global jazz songs,” an apt moniker for music that’s based in a variety of Indian raga and dance styles, but that also manages to include melodic and rhythmic patterns culled from such diverse personal inspirations as Ray Charles, Little Feat, hand jive, “Hey Joe” and even Albany’s own Bryan Thomas (per Ross’ liner notes). This eclectic, fascinating musical concoction is brought to life on The Rain Takes Off Her Clothes in an elegant western jazz setting, with Ross’ guitars swirling above and around Charlie Keagle’s sax and flute, Josh Zucker’s bass and Mike Migliozzi’s drums and percussion. The overall instrumental effect is lovely, inviting and sensual, and provides an excellent framework within which Ross’ emotive vocals (with support from singer Carin Gado) and literate lyrics can jump, dance, frolic, gambol, insinuate and insist in all variety of meters of rhythms—only once, though, in the 4/4 time that most toe-tappers easily recognize. Which isn’t, of course, to say that The Rain Takes Off Her Clothes isn’t filled with toe-tapping music, since one of Ross’ greatest strengths is his ability to make odd (to Western ears) rhythms swing like nobody’s business; you may not be familiar with the five-beat Indian tala khanda eka, but it’ll move you grandly nonetheless, and that’s the ultimate testimony to this power of this innovative, excellent album.

—J. Eric Smith 

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