COUNTRY DOORS: "I pledged allegiance to the lizard king," sings Hank Topless (a.k.a. Tim Gallagher), frontman for local country quartet Topless Opry, toward the end of "No Strings," the first track on the band's debut CD, No Phoenix Blues (Y'Know Co.), released earlier this year. Gallagher, an avowed Jim Morrison freak--the band performed a set of Doors tunes at the 2000 Great Cover-Up--is, lucky for all of us, a better lyricist than Morrison (the aforementioned line is followed by "My mind is like a guitar with no strings"--we'll start worrying when he releases a collection of awful poetry). Still, Gallagher and Morrison have at least a couple things in common; namely, the two share an obsession with all things dark, and whereas Jim was fond of lizards, Tim has a similar bent toward snakes (they pop up several times on the album).

On first listen, the Opry sounds like a pretty traditional country outfit, but on closer inspection the anomalies end up defining the band's m.o. more than anything--this ain't yer granpappy's honky-tonk. There's the psychedelic guitar break in "No Strings," the tossed-in fiddle snippet of "Norwegian Wood" on "--I Said," and the decision to include a fine version of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties," recast as a country lament, as the album's only cover.

And while the resonant, deep-throated Gallagher's songs cover traditional country themes (lyin' and cheatin', drinkin' and dyin'), he tends to write from a far more skewed perspective than is usually found in country music. Lyrical highlights include "--I Said," a trading of barbs between lovers that's reminiscent of The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" ("'I'll keep my pants on if I can just come back home,' I said/'Why don't you fuck off and choke on a bone,' she said/'You been too cruel and you've driven me crazy/I can't be happy 'til you push up daisies/You can't kill something that's already dead,' I said"); "Don't Kick a Dead Man (When He's Down)" is a love song from the great beyond, wherin the dead protagonist threatens to come back as a ghost, ostensibly to scare the beejezus out of his widow; and the suggestive "Snakes Need Love," which contends that "It's hard to run your baby down when you got no legs."

The playing throughout is stellar, but it's Gallagher's pedal steel work and Phil "Dick" Stevens' virtuoso fiddle playing that shine brightest, tastefully fleshing out the tunes without getting in the way of them. It's a hell of a debut.

Topless Opry performs on Sunday, May 26, at Vaudeville Cabaret, 110 E. Congress St. Rodeo Queen opens at 9 p.m. For more info call 622-3535.

SHAKING IT UP: With a recent U.S. tour to promote Giant Sand's latest disc, the nifty covers collection Cover Magazine (Thrill Jockey), behind them, Joey Burns and John Convertino--and whomever else they'll have in tow--reconvene this week as Calexico.

The duo/collective have been taking their sweet time recording the highly anticipated follow-up to 2000's Hot Rail (Quarterstick), logging time at Jim Waters' Waterworks studio, as well as their old stand-by, Craig Schumaker's Wavelab. Burns says the band has been trying out some new recording situations, just to shake things up a bit and see what happens.

Expect to hear a few new tunes when Calexico hits the stage of Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 24. Lou Stebner and Friends open, and ten bucks'll get you through the magic doors. For further details call 622-8848.

LAST NOTES: Baltimore's rootsy-with-a-punk-'tude Mary Prankster, the singer/songwriter/guitarist for the trio that bears her name, writes songs that are wickedly smart and sexy, and by turns, boastful and self-deprecating, about punk rock posers and emotional brutality. The versatile band's third album, slated for a fall release, was produced by the legendary Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pavement).

Mary Prankster opens for Fourkiller Flats at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 25, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. Call 798-1298 with any questions you may have.

Best known for his raucous country-rock outfit Trophy Husbands, Dave Insley brings his "other" band, the more trad bluegrass-y Nitpickers, down from Phoenix for an increasingly rare appearance this week. The band will perform a half-acoustic, half-electric, and 100 percent tasty set at 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 25, at Che's Lounge, 350 N. Fourth Ave. Admission is free, and 623-2088 is the number to call.

Comprising locals Pete Fine, Stefin Gordon, Todd Hammes and Matt Finstrom, Sanjaya also makes a rare club appearance this week, as the band brings its combination of traditional Indian ragas and neo-fusion jazz to Vaudeville Cabaret, 110 E. Congress St., at 9 p.m. on Thursday, May 23. Questions? Call 622-3535.

And finally, blues harp wailer extraordinaire--and pal to Teddy Morgan--R.J. Mischo brings his Red Hot Blues Band to town for a rockin', rollicking set of blues of both the jump and slinky varieties. Mischo and Co. hit the stage at Boondocks, 3306 N. First Ave., at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 26. Cover is six bucks. Call 690-0991 for further details.