By Ray Chelstowski
The Proper Years
Last Music (2-CD Set)
5 out of 5 stars
Bill Kirchen has always been a musician’s musician. Ever since he helped co-found the original “hippie country band,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen has been on the radar of people like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Gene Vincent — soon after he was backing them on stage.
He was quickly named “the titan of the telecaster” and his style of playing would be compared to Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, and Link Wray – all players known to be fast and fiery on that specific Fender product. I always found his tone, technique, and clarity to be more in step with Mark Knopfler and Al Anderson. Like them his abilities seem to carry through a song, “wire to wire” and whether they were rockabilly, blue grass-based, western swing, honky-tonk, jump blues, jazz, or boogie-woogie, Kirchen always filled his songs with a versatility and style that’s all his own.
In July, U.K. label The Last Music Company is releasing a compilation of three albums that Kirchen recorded in London for Proper Records. Called The Proper Years the 2-CD retrospective includes 2006’s Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, its 2010 follow-up Word to the Wise, and 2013’s Seeds and Stems. Waxworks, a vinyl best-of version will follow.
Across 34 tracks and seven years you really get to wrap your ears around what makes his approach to playing so compelling. The bottom end of his guitar neck tosses off deep-bodied notes that hit you like somebody tapping you with their elbow urging you to pay attention. He is fast and yet patient. He flies without being flashy. And he surrounds himself with the kind of back-up talent that equals his own. That keeps the music from ever feeling top heavy. This is best demonstrated on the highway roller “Bump Wood”. Songs here aren’t over arranged but use everyone in the room to their capacity with call and response backing vocals that move about like an accordion. They give the songs depth but never diminish their “live take” sound.
In more tender moments he can slow things down without everything coming apart. One special moment in this regard is in the piano driven tear in your beer ballad “Shelly’s Winter Love”. With soul singer Paul Carrack, they pull at every heart string. It’s a real standout.
The record closes with a real barn stomper called “Talking About Chicken” where he is joined by Jorma Kaukonen. Here the slappin’ snare adds a level of silliness to an already joke-driven track that kinda sums Kirchen up pretty well. He never takes himself too seriously and never takes his guitar for granted. With The Proper Years, you won’t either.