After a 13-year hiatus, the Band of Blacky Ranchette return with an uneven but enjoyable album of roadhouse foot-stompers, Still Lookin' Good to Me. Stepping back behind the pseudonym of Blacky Ranchette, Howe Gelb assembles a new band of old friends to support this cast of compositions. Joined by longtime Giant Sand colleagues and rhythm section Joe Burns and John Convertino, alt-country geek favorite Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel, and an amazing cast of singers that includes Kurt Wagner, Chan Marshall, Richard Buckner and Neko Case, Gelb has brought his act on the road, traveling across the country to gather this collection of Dust Bowl field recordings for his latest release. While there are some transcendent numbers, much of the album is reminiscent of a spaghetti Western filmed through a sandstorm. Snatches of melody can be picked through a shambling haze of finger-picked guitar and drawling vocals that do little more than impart sameness to many of the tracks on these recordings, little effort seems to have been put into making music that could engage the listener.
The most difficult thing about Still Lookin' Good to Me is that the cast of performers brings an anticipation to the record that cannot be overcome. Given the recent spate of excellent releases from Burns and Convertino's other band Calexico, Marshall's Cat Power, Wagner's Lambchop and Neko Case's offering with the New Pornographers (as well as her excellent third solo album), the stage is set for this Band of Blacky Ranchette album to meet, if not exceed, these other records. In some cases Still Lookin' Good to Me does reach these epiphanous heights, and for those songs the results are glorious and fueled with fragile beauty of the finest sort. The album's greatest shortcoming is that the better numbers cause the remaining tracks to sound even more plain and pointless then they may actually be.
The opening minutes of the album are a perfect example, as the first few tracks shuffle by before there's a song that demands to be listened to: "Mope-A-Long Rides Again," which is perhaps the finest song on the album. A full on Opry-style band recording, the track features languid vocals by Gelb backed by siren Case delivering a stunning performance. The song evokes images of the dusty trail and seems to be the elliptical tale of "Mope-A-Long," a person trapped by his own futility and upbringing. Convertino's ace drumming gives the track a mid-tempo swagger and classic AM country feel. With the addition of Rauhouse's pedal steel intertwining with the vocal harmonies, this one sounds like a lost duet between Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.
You can almost smell the sawdust on the gin mill floor on "Getting It Made." Featuring a growling vocal from Richard Buckner and an excellent counterpoint by Case, the song fuses the traditional country fare of the album with an odd samba feel that is brought out by Gelb's piano and guitar lines in the bridge between the verse and chorus. The Latin flavor seems to be out of place at first, and even causes the song to completely break down and disappear at points, but the payoff is when Case and Buckner come back in and belt out the final chorus with soft-brushed drums and guitar supporting them. To add to the oddity of the song, an outro with an Eastern European feel is provided by Paulo Russo on bandonion.
The album takes a bizarre and unnecessary turn with the next few tracks. It becomes completely evident at this point that Gelb has simply dropped his four-track recorder on his friends' doorsteps and recorded whatever came to mind. The aimless fragment "Under the Table" is a good example of this, as is the misguided and sometimes atonal rendition of "Working on the Railroad" attempted by Gelb and Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, a recording that should have remained on the shelf. Things don't get any better with the pointless "Bored Lil' Devil" and the odd blues-fueled acoustic-guitar demo "The Muss of Paradise," where Gelb is joined by Lambchop's Kurt Wagner on vocals. The song is so raw that in the middle the duo are interrupted by a third party and stop the song to speak with the person before finishing it.
Of the remaining tracks, "Left Again" gets things back on track. Recorded during the same session and with the same band as "Mope-A-Long Rides Again," it is a fine accompaniment to that track. While it isn't as urgent as the previous track, "Left Again" uses a strong chorus to make up for a wandering and lost verse. If it weren't for the strength of the band, this song would be a throwaway, but the performances alone give it a winsome and plaintive feel.
The final two tracks provide excellent examples of the strengths and weaknesses that are evident throughout this album. Both tracks are connected thematically through the rhyme of the line, "She puts a certain something in the air" to close "My Hoo Ha" and the opening line, "Put it there. You're one of the squares" on the final track "Squares." Where "Squares" is a majestic folk ballad that relies on the strength of the raw honesty in Gelb's vocal delivery paired with a yearning cello performance, "My Hoo Ha" is a silly bit that features a wasted chant by Chan Marshall that sounds as if it were delivered from a phone booth on the Bowery.
What makes Still Lookin' Good to Me so frustrating and perhaps listenable is that the importance of "Squares" seems to rely on the frivolity of "My Hoo Ha." This seems to be the case across the entire album. For every exquisite and essential composition, there are three or four pointless works that seem to be put there simply to accentuate the brilliance of the other recordings.
Perhaps Still Lookin' Good to Me is the product of Gelb's only having a few good songs in the tank. Or maybe it is a purposefully uneven collection of field recordings featuring some of his increasingly famous protégés. In either case, there is something compelling and necessary about this collection that requires repeated listens. What is truly logic-defying is that the more enjoyable songs sound even better after sitting through the lesser ones.