The Band of Blacky Ranchette: Still Looking Good to Me

Andrew Gilstrap

The Band of Ranchy Blackette

Still Looking Good to Me

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2003-10-07
UK Release Date: 2003-10-06

The Band of Blacky Ranchette is an opportunity for Howe Gelb (he of Giant Sand semi-fame) to sit back, relax, and throw some songs down in a jam-like setting with his friends. True, that kind of sounds like any other Gelb project -- his work usually maintains a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants charm, and pristine production is usually the last thing on his mind -- but the Blacky Ranchette projects (this marks the fourth release in about twenty years) let him work out his country and western cravings without too much pressure. Like anything involving Gelb, though, that "country and western" tag comes with a lot of qualifiers. You certainly aren't going to hear it sandwiched between George Strait and Shania Twain.

Aiding him this this time around are folks like Neko Case, Richard Buckner, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, M. Ward, Chan Marshall, and Calexico (a roster that's even more of a guarantee you won't be hearing any boot-scootin' boogies). In some cases, folks got together and jammed the songs together; in others, Gelb took existing backing tracks and spontaneously asked people to provide vocals. One of the most charming examples is Wagner's vocal turn on "The Muss of Paradise". Recorded outside an airport, it's bursting with peripheral noises like cars passing, Gelb coaching Wagner on lyrics, lyric sheets turning, and even a conversation with a police officer or attendant who tells them they can't park where they're sitting. On "Getting it Made", Gelb constructs a flawless duet between Buckner and Case, even though the two reportedly laid down their parts months apart (and Buckner didn't even know he was going to be part of a duet). As much as any recording Gelb's done, Still Looking Good to Me exemplifies his strike-while-the-iron's-hot mentality.

Gelb's friends are obviously of the same mold, because Still Looking Good to Me is a leisurely, ramshackle record full of loping country rhythms, touches of pedal steel guitar, and subtle shifts in tone. Songs like "Bored Lil' Devil" and "Square" are primarily Gelb, an acoustic guitar, some drums, and whoever else is in the room chipping in on harmonies. These songs are often creaky, filled with quiet spaces or background noise, and possessed of a timeless feeling. Even the more full-bodied tracks never get carried away with themselves. For some, Gelb's sandy, deliberate delivery is probably grating, but once you let yourself into his laid-back desert style, it just carries you along. "Getting it Made" shifts from a shuffling pace to a mariachi-tinged guitar and piano interlude, and finishes up with a spry, bandoneon-laced outburst -- and it just sweeps you along as you tap your feet.

Lyrically, Gelb doesn't concentrate on any one topic, but trains make more than a few appearances on Still Looking Good to Me. "The Train Singer's Song" gets some momentum going by the end, but it never tries to mimic a runaway locomotive: instead, it takes an easy pace, evoking dusty valleys and lonesome train whistles. In an odd choice, Gelb even tackles "Working on the Railroad" (with a blissfully fuzzed-out guitar solo). "Rusty Tracks" refers to "trout replica masks", giving a nod to one of Gelb's obvious influences: Captain Beefheart. Beefheart's gut-bucket blues don't show up on Still Looking Good to Me (or really anywhere else in Gelb's output), but the overall aesthetic of vibe over by-the-numbers precision runs to Gelb's core.

Another thread running throughout the album is Neko Case, who almost steals the show from Gelb on a number of occasions. Case's voice is so clear, so strong, so steeped in classic country phrasing that she could probably make a billion dollars if she ever sold out and joined the Nashville scene (at the very least, she should consider a cover record of classic country tracks). On Still Looking Good to Me she weaves in and out of songs like a drawling muse, raising each track to another level. Her duet with Buckner is the obvious standout, but everywhere she appears, its as if Gelb has mined a pure and previously lost vein of some classic country element.

Still Looking Good to Me is an interesting counterpoint to Gelb's previous release, The Listener. The Listener was informed as much by Gelb's Tucson home as well as by his time spent in Denmark (where he makes his home for half of the year). Still Looking Good to Me jettisons The Listener's relative polish and smoothness in favor of dusty roughness and bare-bones country sentiments. It's not for everybody, certainly, but even if you're only straddling the fence of Gelb appreciation, Still Looking Good to Me has plenty of off-kilter, slightly lo-fi delights to offer.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.