February 09, 2004

The Band of Blacky Ranchette "Still Looking Good to Me"

In the twenty years that have passed since the first Band of Blacky Ranchette record, Band co-founder and Giant Sand head honcho Howe Gelb acquired some friends. Friends like Neko Case and Chan Marshall and Richard Buckner and Kurt Wagner and John Convertino and Joey Burns and Matt Ward and Dallas Good and Jason Lytle and Bobby Neuwirth. With these friends, Howe Gelb has created the latest Band of Blacky Ranchette release, Still Lookin’ Good to Me.

Sometimes the results are blissful and evocative of the endless, wide-open perspective abundant in traditional Old West pieces like “Working on the Railroad” (a fetching version of which, featuring Jason Lytle, is included here). Other times, there is a drastic misuse of available resources. For instance, the song “My Hoo Ha” features Chan Marshall speak-singing the line “Hey hun you have to hush” three times and then vanishing. It is not nearly as cool as it sounds, and I would even go as far as to call it irresponsible. C’mon Howe, it’s Cat Power! Spare the lady a verse, fer chrissakes.

The majority of the record similarly bobs and weaves between inviting and negligible. There is a duet for the ages sung by Richard Buckner and Neko Case (“Getting it Made”) that successfully matches their disparate vocals, yin paired expertly with yang. Neko’s soaring “and the gray-haaayy” from the closing moments of that song has scrambled my wits for weeks now. And I have an image in my mind of Howe watching Neko belt out, “He sees the light in her eyes and he always will,” during “Mope-A-Long Rides Again” and fighting off a spastic urge to Phil Spector himself a little Ronnie. On a peer-laden collection of songs, Neko’s work on three of these tracks finds itself absolutely peerless.

There’s a crumb of a song (“The Muss of Paradise”) recorded in a car outside the Nashville International Airport, during which Kurt Wagner of Lambchop sings – at times being fed lines by Howe – while parked in a restricted area. The conversation between the Kurt and the police officer requesting that he move his car is captured in the recording. Is it a curious approach to recording music? Maybe, but a lyric like, “Paradise don’t come without mistakes” deserves better.

John Convertino (of Giant Sand and Calexico fame) continues to strengthen his already solid credentials as one of contemporary music’s most uniquely identifiable and capable percussionists. There is delicateness to the way Convertino approaches his timekeeping that, like a good referee, you don’t notice due to its effectiveness. Joey Burns (also of Giant Sand and Calexico) supplements his duties on the bass with a gorgeous cello part in “Square,” a live recording of a Giant Sand performance that closes out the record.

It is in that final song that the history of The Band of Blacky Ranchette is somewhat bookended. “Square” was written by Howe Gelb with his old friend Rainer Ptacek. The two men birthed The Band of Blacky Ranchette twenty years ago and returned to it on occasion until Ptacek’s passing in 1997. “Square” closes with the line, “You’re way too real for wide appeal.” It feels both like a tribute to a lost friend and a fair summation of Still Lookin’ Good. This record has almost-stars crowding the firmament, but not always shining overly bright. Gelb is a constant throughout with a signature vocal style that resembles how Shane MacGowan might sound had he moved to Tuscon and gone on a quaalude bender. Sometimes it all coalesces into transcendence, but more often than one would predict in light of the impressive roster, it amounts to inconsequence.

To put it another way: Fee, fie, fiddle-e-i-o.

-Andrew Ullrich

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