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The Band of Blacky Ranchette | Still Looking Good To Me (Thrill Jockey)
In which Howe Gelb picks his guests by repeatedly sticking a pin into a copy of Comes with a Smile. Only kidding, but it's indicative of Gelb's standing on this particular teir of the musical underground, that his collaborators on this thoroughly engaging set have all found their way into the pages and onto the CDs of our little magazine.
In the role of Blacky, Gelb is curator, musical director and guiding light to his band of protégés. From the familial grouping of Mope-A-Long Rides Again and Left Again wherein fellow Sandmen Joey Burns and John Convertino are joined by The Sadies' Dallas Good on guitar and a harmonising Neko Case, to the self-accompanied intimacy of Bored Li'l Devil and Airstream, 'Still Looking Good To Me' is a resounding success and the most satisfying collection to have sprung from Gelb's prolific laboratory since, well, forever.
Lambchop's Kurt Wagner provides one of the album's most memorable moments, clearly singing The Muss of Paradise for the very first time. With the pair sat roadside, we hear the flipping of a lyric sheet midway, Wagner's phrasing engagingly improvised (we hear Howe's prompts), a crooked wheel on Gelb's bumpy highway. Toward the end the pair are interrupted by a traffic cop who insists they move out of their no-parking zone. Elsewhere a similarly unrehearsed Chan Marshall drops by to lend a helping hand on the penultimate My Hoo Ha, whilst Matt Ward lends his slide guitar chops to the rustic country blues of Rusty Tracks. In a prime example of Gelb's alchemy, the incomparable Richard Buckner takes the mic for Getting It Made, a little studio trickery enabling him to duet with Case. For all these impressive cameos, this is very much Gelb's record, a fourteen-course feast served up and seasoned by its venerable host.
With the Gelb/Burns/Convertino live rendition of Square bringing the set to a suitably applause-spattered end, I allow myself a little daydream. In it this array of maverick talent converges upon a stage cluttered with instruments archaic and unknown. They sit huddled in a tight circle awaiting the arrival of their conductor. He ambles up, inadvertently stepping on a pedal that triggers a snatch of blues guitar from beyond the grave. He grins then plugs a lead into a battered acoustic guitar sending a wail of ear-splitting reverb out into the room. Nodding apologetically to the soundman he slowly coaxes, from a fumbling of fingers and thumbs, a ragged rhythm. Looks are exchanged among the assembled musicians as they slot into place behind him and all the while I'm straining to read the puckered sticker that's been gradually worn away by years of fingernails scratched across the surface of his guitar. As his arm lifts and falls I slowly piece together this frayed shibboleth. It reads, "paradise don't come without mistakes."
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003