Joe Ely may be iconic in Americana music circles, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels these days. Joe Strummer’s favorite country singer has seen the cult favorite debut album by his early 70s supergroup the Flatlanders reissued, along with his hard-to-find 1983 solo record B484, one of the first releases to utilize what was then state-of-the-art computer technology. Earlier this year, a previously unreleased duet by Ely and Linda Ronstadt was rescued from the vaults. His thinly veiled autobiographical novel Reverb: An Odyssey is out, and is as brilliant and understatedly surreal as you would expect from an eloquent pioneer of what would become known as alt-country back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. If that isn’t enough, Ely is the Texas State Musician of 2016. And his latest darkly relevant, immigrant-themed album, Panhandle Rambler – streaming at Spotify – employs a wide and distinguished group of talent from his Austin circle. It might be the best solo album he’s ever done. His most recent gig here was with the Flatlanders at Carnegie Hall several months back, but he’s making a rare return to NYC with a gig on July 27 at 8 PM at B.B. King’s. Advance tix are $27.50.
The album’s first cut, Wounded Creek builds from an ominous thicket of acoustic guitars and bass into a darkly bluesy southwestern gothic ballad, Ely at the top of his game as purposefully imagistic storyteller. The similarly uneasy, tiptoeing Magdalene also works an allusive, haunted storyline, an outlaw couple on the run. “I don’t know what comes next,” Ely confides, “Your guess is as good as mine,” Joel Guzman’s accordion wafting in the distance. Coyotes Are Howling keeps the border-rock suspense going, a gloomy American narcocorrida of sorts:
Bright lights are flashing
Both red and blue
It’s nowhere near Christmas
But it’s long overdue
When the Nights Are Cold sardonically nicks a famous Pink Floyd riff for a somber portrait of illegal immigrant angst. Early in the Mornin’ follows a similar, more enigmatic tangent, blending elegant Mexican folk touches into late 70s outlaw honkytonk. Southern Eyes works a sarcastically shuffling western swing groove, followed by the folk noir hobo tale Four Ol’ Brokes.
Wonderin’ Where is a bittersweetly nostalgic William Carlos Williams-ish tale with Memphis soul tinges. Ely goes back to outlaw balladry with the brooding, ghostly Burden of Your Load, arguably the album’s best song:
State prison? Don’t get distracted
Keep your eyes on the road
The weight will be subtracted
From the burden of your load
Then the band picks up the pace with Here’s to the Weary, a populist anthem referencing Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and George Jones. Jim Hoke’s ghostly steel keens icily in Cold Black Hammer, a darkly wry, Tom Waits-style story of a real femme fatale. The final cut is the unexpectedly hard-rocking You Saved Me, drawing a straight line back to Buddy Holly. Throughout the album, there’s all kinds of tasteful, often Spanish-tinged picking, contrasting with Guzman’s echoey, 80s-style synth lines, in the same vein as the Highwaymen records. Ely’s voice is a little more flinty now, which suits him fine since subtlety and stories have always been his thing. It’s another release that really should have been on last year’s list of best albums here.