Mixing instrumentals and vocal tracks on one record is a practice fraught with peril. If an artist is to succeed with such a gambit, he must ensure that the songs possess a degree of thematic and genre consistency. Only then might they coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Steel guitar master and veteran Neko Case sideman Jon Rauhouse’s genre-bending style makes him particularly susceptible to these risks. With jazz, country, pop, and Hawaiian elements prominent in his sound, stylistic consistency is always going to be a challenge. As it happens, Steel Guitar Heart Attack, Rauhouse’s third solo record, is particularly maddening in this respect. While Rauhouse’s talent and dexterity are never in doubt, the album’s highlights are consistently undermined by the disparate genres competing for the listener’s attention and by selections that are either weak or unsuitable for this format. It should come as no surprise that most of the record’s vocal tracks fall into the latter category.
The first six of the record’s 18 tracks exemplify the record’s issues with stylistic and thematic consistency. In this segment, three strong pieces are countered by three uninspired or unsuitable selections. The jazzy “Idaho” gets the record off to a promising start. It features an amiable group vocal from the “Idaho Choir” and some delightful interplay between the guitars of Rauhouse and his longtime sideman Tommy Connell, which are complemented by Jeff Livingston’s sprightly piano. In fact, this interplay between Rauhouse and Connell is responsible for most of the record’s better moments. The deceptively smooth second track, “Bongo Ride”, offers more evidence of this. Here Rauhouse and Connell build on the opener’s momentum with supple guitar lines laid over a pleasantly restrained bongo part. That tune ends abruptly, however, and the listener is suddenly vaulted into a limpid version of the old standard “I’ll Be Seeing You”, sung by Sally Timms of the Mekons. This track effectively kills the record’s momentum as it introduces an entirely different musical feel and thematic focus to the proceedings. While Timms effort is not sufficiently compelling to transport the listener to a different time and place, its mere presence is enough to derail the groove that had hitherto been gathering steam.
The following instrumental rave-up “5 after 5” stands tall on the deft interplay of Rauhouse’s banjo and Paul Rigby’s mandolin, but it sounds out of place between Timms’ faithful standard and Rauhouse’s own “Drinkin’ and Smokin’”. On the latter, Rauhouse adopts a Lou Reed-via-the-1950s vocal style to deliver vapid lines like “Drinkin’ will let you stop doing what you have to do/ It helps you get away when you’re feeling through”. Rauhouse and Connell take lovely solos, but those are not enough to redeem this tedious song. In the sixth position, Rachel Flotard’s unconvincing version of “Harbor Lights” re-affirms the growing sense of aimlessness. Her take on that old standard leads into an unremarkable middle section whose disparate parts include another weak Rauhouse vocal (‘Everybody Loves the Sun’), a version of the theme from the ‘70s detective show Mannix, and a brief and unremarkable version of “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” courtesy of Ms. Case.
Fortunately, things pick up a little as Steel Guitar Heart Attack nears its conclusion. Kelly Hogan’s take on Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” fares better than the other vocal tracks; it locks in on that vintage country sound while maintaining the up-tempo feel of the better instrumentals. Here, Hogan’s smoky vocal finds an ideal counterpart in Rauhouse’s steel guitar line as it recounts this tale of a showdown between rival gunslingers in the Wild West. The back end of Steel Guitar Heart Attack also features several strong instrumentals, including the jaunty “Begin the Beguine” and “Hood Canal”. Once again, however, we have a clash of genres as the swinging’ jazz feel of the former meets the mandolin and banjo duel of the latter. Fortunately, the sublime “Girls of Pajama Hill” follows, whereupon Rauhouse and Connell proffer their sweetest licks of all in advance of Hogan’s stellar effort. As on the majority of the record’s tracks, Kevin O’Donnell’s sublime drumming provides a reassuring touchstone beneath the racing guitars.
These successes notwithstanding, Steel Guitar Heart Attack must ultimately be regarded as a disjointed record that fails to offer a satisfying listening experience from start to finish. With such variety among the tracks, and some admittedly weaker efforts in the mix, Rauhouse’s consistently skillful steel guitar is not enough to unify the record’s many disparate elements. It is the hope of this critic that Rauhouse’s will one day make the sort of cohesive instrumental record that could really showcase his talent and creativity. Until then, those who love the sound of the steel guitar should seek out Rauhouse’s superior individual tracks, or catch the man live at Case’s side as he melds his signature sound with the alternative country maven’s equally timeless voice.