October 30, 2003

Test Spin: The Band of Blacky Ranchette

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Howe Gelb, the eccentric singer-songwriter most known for his band Giant Sand, has used Blacky Ranchette as an alter ego and creative outlet since the mid-’80s. His fourth release under the pseudonym, Still Lookin’ Good to Me, sees Gelb’s twisted folk compositions in the hands and voices of a Who’s Who of contemporary alt.country (everyone from Calexico to Kurt Wagner makes a guest appearance).

“Rusty Tracks” drops some Captain Beefheart references, providing a fitting precursor to Gelb’s unique musical niche. Just as the number of artists the Captain inspired is greater than the number of records he sold, Gelb proves on Still Lookin’ Good to Me that his greatest achievement is confined, however unfairly, to a fanbase comprised primarily of other musicians. Any fear that Gelb is using a cast of hyped artists to sell his scraps, however, is assuaged by the obvious appreciation these guest artists and friends exhibit for Gelb’s inimitable lyricism and distinct melodicism.

A few songs benefit from two of the sexiest chanteuses ever to make it into an indie geek’s wet dream. Neko Case adds her goosebump-inducing, powerful pipes to three songs. She shines on “Getting It Made,” which pairs her assertive vocal bravado with Richard Buckner’s smokey baritone. Unfortunately, a fan of Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) picking this up for her inclusion will be disappointed by her meager, albeit memorable, offering — a few half-spoken lines in “My Hoo Ha” — but this sort of contribution somehow makes sense in the context.

The tracks all bleed into each other seamlessly, providing a surprising sense of cohesiveness to an otherwise ramshackle batch of songs — some recorded live, some in the studio, others while driving. Gelb’s peculiar and yet incredibly accessible musical vision — full of unpredictable chord changes and experimental, lo-fi aesthetics — permeates the entire album, making this a solid song cycle from one of alternative country’s most beloved innovators.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas