Dusted Reviews

The Band of Blacky Ranchette - Still Lookin' Good To Me

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: The Band of Blacky Ranchette

Album: Still Lookin' Good To Me

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Oct. 12, 2003

Howe Gelb lassoed together the first Band of Blacky Ranchette twenty years ago. “We were reckless and young,” he reminisces, “trying to deliver some element of the old country records that we thought were so great.” In approach and in tempo, if not exactly in tone, Gelb’s take on country in all the years since has been something like Robert Altman’s 1975 scrutiny of its Nashville stomping ground – whirling, episodic, and giddily hyperkinetic. A need for perpetual motion, a playful acceptance of uncertainty and unrest – this is what has charged Gelb’s music for the last two decades, separating him from the somber, garden-variety alt-country bands that his own early-80s trailblazing helped to spawn. For this reason the best Gelb efforts – like the best Altman films – neglect an overbearing structure, basking instead in a tangled aggregate of clamorous voices. The anarchic push-and-pull of improvisational collaboration is the cow dung kindling in the Giant Sand-family bonfire, and also what’s gone painfully missing from recent efforts like The Listener.

Still Lookin’ Good To Me, the first Blacky Ranchette record in over a decade, is the first Gelb offering to really hit its stride since 2000’s Chore of Enchantment, and while it lacks the crystal-blue emotional clarity of Chore, this time around the band makes up the difference in sheer merriment. Rounding out the ever-faithful troupe (Calexico’s John Convertino and Joey Burns, as well as original Blacky drummer Tom Larkins) is an A-list cast of collaborators, including Chan Marshall, Neko Case, M. Ward, Richard Buckner, and Kurt Wagner. Still, the dusty galloping sound of Still Lookin’ Good To Me is primarily the adobe house that Gelb built – deep, laconic vocals wrapped around pedal steel and the rattlesnake shake of Convertino’s percussion. It’s certainly the case with the opener, “The Train Singer’s Song,” in which Gelb steals lines from his own songbag (“Born out of dichotomy / The train singer’s song used to beat the heck on out of me”) and improvises vocal flourishes while his guitar stumbles onto elliptical flamenco lines.

Anyone who finds Gelb too much of a quirky, acquired taste ought to be quickly converted by tracks like “Mope-A-Long Rides Again.” With its swooping steel, rich bass, and loping Opry pizzazz it stacks up with any of his great songs. Of course the presence of Neko Case on backing vocals is the difference between a sac fly and a grand slam – Case has apparently relocated to Tucson, and the prospect of future Giant Sand/Calexico collaborations is delicious as any. She also props up the gruff Buckner on “Getting It Made” – a Neko track through-and-through, aside for the jazzy piano bridge that is patently Gelb. Like the fuzzy sheets of guitar that used to tear through Giant Sand songs with greater frequency in the 80s and 90s, Case offers a straight-from-the-gut spark that helps ignite all of the material she touches here.

As is the case with practically all of Gelb’s records, Still Lookin’ Good To Me bridges its obvious pleasers with fumbling, off-the-cuff ballads that sound phoned in – often literally. Here, though, they’re almost uniformly competent, serving more as color and less as filler. “Searing Wine” is a scribbled redemption ballad that’s surprisingly touching for its minute-length duration, and the rudimentary, rhythmically-challenged “My Hoo Ha” floats by virtue of the weird vocal chemistry (however short-lived) between Gelb and Chan Marshall. There are obvious missteps – Gelb’s eccentric version of “Working On The Railroad” should have ended up on the cutting room floor, and Kurt Wagner’s bottleneck blues sound lonely without the warmth of his backing band – but most Giant Sand-related records that flop do so only when the rambling asides overwhelm the more straight-forward songwriting. Gelb locates a successful balance this time out.

The Band of Blacky Ranchette save some of their best stuff for last – particularly the closer, “Square,” a ballad Gelb penned with the late Rainer Ptacek. Singing like he’s got a full orchestra behind him rather than a lonely guitar and the somber, slightly sour cello of Joey Burns, Gelb squeezes the whole of the sparkling Pacific Coast myth into a pocket of Tucson sand. “Big old breadth {sic} of fresh air / Just good to know you’re there / You’re way too big to fit on any magazine / …Finer than the finery splayed well on the silver screen.” It’s grand and stoic like a Neil Young ballad, and while the ragged glory of Gelb’s Homestead years always conjured the 70s ghost of Young, this is perhaps the closest Gelb’s yet come to an “Ambulance Blues.” Stumbling a bit in recent years, it’s very nice to find Gelb right back where he belongs – all over the map, with a band of very talented friends in tow.

By Nathan Hogan

Read More

View all articles by Nathan Hogan

Find out more about Thrill Jockey

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.