Bill Kirchen - Word to the Wise

Dominic Valvona 22/08/2010

Rating: 4/5

If as they say, you really can judge a man's character by the company he keeps then Bill Kirchen must be a true gent and saint, as he certainly mixes it with some distinguished people. Known as 'The Titan of the Telecaster' - a mighty boost and impressive moniker - Kirchen calls in favours from a wealth of talented vocalists and well-travelled musos, who may not all be household names, but remain among the leading advocates in their chosen fields. Included among these notable pals are such luminaries as Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrick and Maria Muldaur.

Kirchen is a journeyman of choice, brought up in the infamous Ann Arbour rock and roll and blues scene of the late 60s, and is also a contemporary of Iggy Pop - attending school together. Both an exceptional tremelo twanging axe wielder and a singer/songwriter, he has both extensively sat in with countless artists and carved out his own niche solo career, indolently and sporadically releasing albums where and when he wants to.

Word to the Wise is a loose collection of mostly originally penned songs with a few emotive chosen covers, which traverse a myriad of genres including bluegrass, country, R&B and rockabilly. Essentially an album of duets interspersed with Kirchen occasionally singing unaided, all seamlessly flowing from beginning to end and covering themes synonymous with resignation, morality, unfrequented love and a pining for the old west.

The many highlights include the Merle Haggard doleful cover 'Shelly's Winter Love', which is mournfully crooned by former Mike and the Mechanics and Squeeze member Paul Carrick and Nick Lowe. Both give an Everly Brothers redolent performance of this weepy. Elvis Costello delivers a trembling straining vocal on the tumultuous moody 'Man In The Bottom Of The Well', making this stirring, Kirchen-penned tome his own. Comrade and country music songwriter Kevin 'Blackie' Farrell co-wrote two of the songs on this album, the Texas evocative swaggering lament 'Open Range' is the first time he's sang on a record. He has a distinctive fraught and gravely voice, perfect for narration, one which you'll never forget, like an echo from the old Wild West.

A much more up-beat turn is Kirchen's 'I Don't Work That Cheap', a Dylan 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' style dexterous rant that takes in a time machine, the French revolution and the decimal system, the chorus announcing in bravado fashion “You can't pay me what I'm worth, I don't work that cheap”. Accompanying him on this Bo Diddly inspired joint is the stripped-down barroom rocking Commander Cody - Kirchen was originally a member of his group in the 60s- who tinkles the Jerry Lee Lewis-esque ivory.

There is a touching duet with the blues and folk troubadour Maria Muldaur - famously wrote the hit 'Midnight At The Oasis' - on the prohibition era sounding ballad 'Ain't Got Time For The Blues'. Muldaur's vocals sound like they've wafted off an old gramophone player.

Rather poignantly the final swansong of 'Valley Of The Moon' is a timely tribute to former Commander Cody band member and world-renowned harmonica player Norton Buffalo, who died of cancer not long after this recording.

Never afraid to display its emotions on the outside of its playing card, rodeo and roses decorated cowboy shirts, falling wholly into the depths of unashamed sentimentality.
A well-executed album filled with stirring examples from a bygone era, nostalgic in tone yet very much relevant to the now, this showcase of the 'Titan's' work demonstrates his trunk of skills as both a guitar player and songwriter.

Release date: Out now