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.