Bill Kirchen: Word to the Wise

[2 August 2010]

By David Maine

A mixed bag

It seems tough to argue with Bill Kirchen’s guitar-god status. As one of Commander Cody’s original Lost Planet Airmen, his twangy Telecaster informed “Hot Rod Lincoln”, among many other country-rock tunes. Decades later, Kirchen is still at it, releasing a good-natured set of songs featuring duets with such diverse artists as Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur, and Elvis Costello. It’s all pleasant enough, but also a mixed bag that will probably satisfy already existing fans while being unlikely to draw in new listeners.

Opener “Bump Wood” is a good-timey rock ‘n’ roll number that gets the proceedings off to a suitably rollicking start—a gentle rollicking, if you will—but neither it nor follow-up “Shelley’s Winter Love” makes much of an impression, despite Paul Carrack and Nick Lowe sharing vocal duties on the latter. Not until Elvis Costello’s turn singing “Man in the Bottom of the Well” does the album wake up. The song, which features a sinister underlying organ and suitably throaty singing by Costello, is delivered with conviction, which is different from saying that it actually means anything; it also benefits from sharp guitar work by Kirchen.

Commander Cody himself shows up on piano for “I Don’t Work That Cheap”, the album’s other highlight. Wry where “Man” is serious, fast-paced where the other song is deliberately mid-tempo, “I Don’t Work That Cheap” is reminiscent of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” in its meandering shaggy-dog story of time travel across Europe and the USA, involving meetings with Queen Elizabeth, Robespierre, and Obama. The tossed-off punchline for each verse—“You can’t pay me what I’m worth, I don’t work that cheap”—nails the vibe. Cody’s piano provides a lively counterpoint to Kirchen’s rippling guitar licks, and the whole thing is tremendously fun.

After that one-two punch, the rest of Word to the Wise is a bit of a comedown. Delicate guitar creates a spidery framework for “Time Will Tell the Story”, but at this point the limitations of Kirchen’s voice are becoming apparent. Numerous guest vocalists—besides Costello, Lowe, and Carrack, there are Chris O’Connell, Blackie Farrell, Dan Hicks, and Maria Muldaur—are perhaps an acknowledgment of this, but they also serve to undermine the sense of whose record this really is. More importantly, the material is not strong enough to be memorable, or, more precisely, many of these songs sound overly familiar. “Word to the Wise” is a peppy acoustic blues/old-timey duet with Dan Hicks that sounds by the numbers, despite the pair’s undeniable musical prowess and pleasant banter. Maria Muldaur’s guest turn on “Ain’t Got Time for the Blues” suffers from a similar shortcoming.

The album closes with “Valley of the Moon”, another good-natured mid-tempo tune, this time featuring harmonica by Norton Buffalo. It’s pleasant enough but unlikely to be remembered ten minutes after it ends. That’s this album in a nutshell. Bill Kirchen is a skilled guitar slinger and songwriter, a dab hand with a lick and a clever couplet, but these days, audiences demand a bit more from their guitar gods.

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