When it comes to steel guitar, Jon Rauhouse is the go-to guy for modern Americana artists and bands including Neko Case, Old 97s and Calexico. His third solo outing proves he clearly knows the idiom and lineage of his chosen instrument. His prowess is best showcased on "Ballad of the Black Chihuahua," a dark and slinky original very much in the Calexico vein. He dips into television themes ("Mannix," "The Fishing Hole" better known as the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show."), wartime chart-topping big band classics ("Idaho," "Begin the Beguine," "I'll Be Seeing You") and masterfully directs a chorus in a finely epic rendition of "Big Iron."
The project is full of quirks, including a bit of Esquivel-ish pizzicato whimsy. Some of the tunes fall into the "one of these things is not like the other" category, although they stand up fine on their own, namely "5 After 5," which, although a nice banjo tune, seems a bit out of place. It's bluegrassy and wonderful, but it is awkward in almost-garish contrast to the vintage hued vocal tunes that bookcase it.
Then there are the vocals. Rauhouse himself has a fine voice lent sparingly. He calls upon Case, Kelly Hogan, Rachel Flotard (Visqueen) and Sally Timms (The Mekons) to contribute, but the pairings don't always mesh. Hogan's contribution is the most effective. "Hood Canal" with its lines of complex runs similar to the bluegrass instrumental "Blackberry Blossom," seems also out of place.
However, it is precisely that sort of odd juxtaposition and idiosyncrasy that makes this project charmingly likeable and a heck of a lot of fun to listen to time and again.