Album Review

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodruiguez - Red Dog Tracks

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez - Red Dog Tracks

Any recording that begins with invocations of whiskey, the devil, a full moon and mountains rolling to the sea to the accompaniment of a banjo industriously plinked in counterpoint to a fiddle and a harmonica is worth paying attention to.

When that first song is topped by the next song, which unleashes a torrent of playful trash talk sung with a twang that reeks of true Texas, even closer scrutiny is called for. And when that happens song after song, the next song overwhelming the previous, almost without exception, rolling, reeling, and rambling all the way to the very last note, interspersed with passages of emotional expressions so intimate, unadulterated, and palm-sweaty sexual, informed by both Julie London and Patsy Cline, the whole package demands serious contemplation.

Once said contemplations are pondered during and after extended listening, the contemplator finally arrives at a simple conclusion: Folks, folk music -- Americana, singer-songwriter, alt country, call it whatever you wanna call it -- doesn't get much better than this.

Look, Chip Taylor is old enough to be Carrie Rodriguez's grandfather, and is so successful at his art and craft that he doesn't need to be doing this at all, because he's written all the classics a songwriter ever needs to write and could comfortably live the rest of his days off of royalties from "Wild Thing" and "Angel In The Morning" alone. And he sure doesn't need the hassles of recording and touring and doing the business of music, having carved out a fat income for an extended period of time as a full-time professional gambler. So maybe, just maybe, he prefers the concept of performing songs more than he loves the ponies and counting cards.

Carrie Rodriguez doesn't need the gig either. She was just minding her own business, using her extensive classical violin training to work a gig playing behind Taylor while seeing the world. According to lore, it was somewhere in Europe when the muse moved him to urge the Austin girl to sing along with him onstage. That simple gesture ignited a spontaneous combustion that is still expanding and testing the boundaries and limits of creative collaboration. And she just got married to a real nice guy who is not Chip Taylor.

So what's up with this Chip & Carrie thing then? Over the course of three albums, they have coalesced and blended together into duet partners who are so interdependent and so intricately linked, each sounds diminished whenever they sing solo. Neither is complete unless they're singing with each other. By reaching that particular level of achievement, comfort and familiarity, they have unintentionally thrown down a Texas Death Match/Loser Leaves Town challenge to all comers in the duet category, especially those from the Buddy & Julie, Bruce & Kelly, Prine & DeMent realm: Try and beat this. In other words, here is the new standard of duets that all others should be judged by.

That's how good Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez are on Red Dog Tracks. The title track tells the tale. Two voices conspire to create a real dialogue that evokes a warm sense of familiarity, while simply arranged music propels the whole story along.

Rodriguez's brassy, sassy voice can carry a bad set of lyrics and render them brilliant. Her drawl is real, not an affectation. Taylor sounds so world-weary and wise, every syllable uttered suggests he's walked a mile in everyone's shoes. Blended together, the sound and the sentiment speak of the bedrock upon which all country music was founded, even though it hardly exists anymore. Which raises several questions.

Is "Keep Your Hat On Jenny" a weathered, weary bluegrass hoedown echoing from some yonder hollow in the distant past, or is it a thoroughly modern acoustic fiddle sing-along that is a classic in the making? What about "Set A Light"? Am I hearing sanctified prayer being called out, or is it an invitation for a roll in the hay? Is "Son Of Man" gospel or blasphemy? What to make of "Once Again, Once More" -- wasn't that something moaned by Bill Monroe eons ago?

You don't need to know the answers. Just be content to be privy to an intimacy rarely heard on a recording, and get over feeling like a voyeur just because you're privy to the conversation in "Private Thoughts", a song that rivals Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" as afterglow romanticism, only done as a call-and-response.

Only when roots credentials are presented in contemplative recitations of the country chestnuts "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" and "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" does their standard of excellence wobble. But that minor quibble is more than offset by the instrumental workout on "Elzick's Farewell", which begins with some dolled-up psychedelic reverse looping at the start and stretches into an extended jam and back-porch picking session, serving notice that Taylor and Rodriguez are no mere state-of-the-art woosome-twosome singers, but seasoned players who can match the caliber of the band surrounding them (which includes guitar artist Bill Frisell).

When they started out, Chip & Carrie were a pretty cool novelty, the unlikeliest couple of the year. Three years later, Red Dog Tracks makes plain that they've grown way beyond that.