Since re-signing with his old label MCA in 1990, Joe Ely has released a string of solid albums, and Twistin’ In The Wind, his new disc, is no exception. Dig yourself down into the words and the music — especially the wonderful instrumental work twisting and turning through every song — and it’s clear that Ely and the top-notch musicians he’s pulled together for Twistin’ are doing much more than just fooling around.
Yet something is missing, and it’s not easy to pinpoint. It’s a fire that burns when you listen and makes you want it again and again — and it’s definitely a feeling that Ely, who’s been making records since his days in the Flatlanders some 25 years ago, has achieved several times over. Listen to his self-titled 1977 solo debut and the following year’s Honky Tonk Masquerade, or his superb 1987 HighTone album Lord Of The Highway, and you’ll find that fire.
Then come back to Twistin’ In The Wind. It’s got energy, it’s got power, and it’s got plenty of honest emotion, too. Ely’s Southwestern-themed songs travel the same territory as did those on his previous (and more acoustic-oriented) release, Letter To Laredo. The setting is the desert borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico, a mystical and sometimes existential place where beautiful women breeze through deserted towns on horseback (“Queen Of Heaven”) while strong men stand up to face fate (“Up On The Ridge”), the dead-end street of their day-to-day lives (“Workin’ For The Man”), or the bitter reality of their turgid emotional past (“Twistin’ In The Wind”). “Release me from the binds of love,” Ely sings on the standout title track, “I can’t tell right from wrong.”
Ely wrote or co-wrote all 12 tunes on Twistin’, and it’s some fine work, but the musicianship is the main attraction here. For starters, there’s a mind-boggling variety of guitar parts — strong and bold on one hand, delicate and reflective on the other, and often intermingling to give the songs a compelling complexity. Along with flamenco master Teye (who also gave Letter To Laredo much of its borderland flavor), Ely employed Jesse Taylor, Mitch Watkins, David Grissom and Lloyd Maines, all of whom have played with him on classic recordings in years past.
The closer you pay attention to the curvy dirt roads that permeate Twistin’, the deeper the music sinks into your psyche. You can almost take a bite out of the thick layers of guitar and accordion that fill out “Sister Soak The Beans”. The flamenco guitar work on “Queen Of Heaven” elevates the song to an astral plane high above the “moonlit mountain” in that song’s desert landscape. And Ely’s strong, expressive voice is as rich as ever, the production allowing him plenty of room so he’s not bumping into walls.
Packed full of such sturdy music, there’s little doubt this album can stand on its own. So what’s missing? It’s that draw, that pull — the feeling that I can’t get through the rest of the day without hearing the punchy melody of “It’s A Little Like Love” or the catchy cuteness of “If I Could Teach My Chihuahua To Sing”. It’s hard to pinpoint, yet when it all boils down, it’s precisely the feeling that separates good, strong records like this one from true and shining gems.