A voice made of crumpled paper, guitar straight from Highway 61, tempo that wavers like the consciousness of porch-sitting bluesman: "The Muss of Paradise" sounds like many of the songs Tucson's Howe Gelb has done with Giant Sand and other bands. And then, the song, by Gleb's freewheeling vernacular-music collective Band of Blacky Ranchette, dissolves in laughter. "How are we doing gentleman?" drawls a police officer. "Oh, we're doing good," answers singer Kurt Wagner. After Wagner explains to the Law that he's in this no-parking zone in order to drop his guitar-playing companion Gelb off at the airport, the song picks up again with barely a hitch. But it's the intrusion that makes the song sublime.
Gelb excels in turning field recordings into digitally dry-cleaned art. Give him a minute or two and he'll deputize you. That Tennessee State Trooper sits in with the rest of Gelb's "band" here: Wagner; his usual collaborators, such as Joey Burns and John Covertino from Giant Sand; alternative country favorites Richard Buckner and Neko Case; and Cat Power's Chan Marshall, who delivers a single line. More impressive on the new Blacky Rachette album Still Lookin' Good to Me, though, is the way Gelb fuses these far-flung tones into the metaphoric "tone" discussed at creative-writing workshops. When he sings "I've been working on the railroad" or "Dinah, won't you blow your horn," you appreciate both the power of folk songs to bridge the stream of time and the fundamental strangeness of singing them in an era when people's idea of a long-lost tradition is the "Bud Bowl" the networks used to show alongside the real football on Super Sunday.
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There's a downside to Gelb's loosely assembled songs. Try putting "appreciate" and "ecstasy" in the same sentence. If it's sustained intensity you're after, neither Howe Gelb nor his hometown will satisfy. Even the album's strongest song, "Getting It Made," which accomplishes the long longed-for feat of getting Buckner and Case to sing a duet, is only, as the lyric suggests, "a kindler of flame" and not the fire itself. But sometimes "a kindler of flame inspires the same," especially when it's Case delivering that line over Gelb's inimitable fusion of piano and guitar.