For people in-the-know, Bill Kirchen is a respected guitar slinger who came up through the ranks as part of Commander Cody’s legendary Lost Planet Airmen band in the 1970s. What many people don’t realize is that he kept on going after he left Cody’s band and has a fine catalog of albums worth exploring.
I am in fact just discovering Mr. Kirchen’s solo music even though I have been aware of him. In fact, I’m pretty sure I got to see him perform with Commander Cody once (Fall 1979 in Syracuse, NY).
I am currently exploring a terrific collection compiling his three albums put out on England’s Proper Music label, newly reissued by the Last Records label.
Including guest appearances by no less than Elvis Costello, Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur and others, these albums are a joy — so much so, I wonder how I missed even hearing about them in the first place!
There’s no question about Kirchen’s guitar playing being brilliant. He rides that fine line between rockabilly, country-western and raw blistering blues sounds yet has great pop sensibilities and knows how to swing to boot!
A fine listen end to end, the music spread across these two CDs sounds remarkably timeless even though they were made beginning in 2006. No, this is just raw, rootsy, gut-punching music that will get you to thinkin’ as much as it may get you up and dancin’…
The big takeaway for me listening to The Proper Years however it’s not just the art of Kirchen’s twang-tastic Telecaster guitar playing, but the fact that he is a great songwriter and — ultimately — storyteller. Both in his delivery of the songs he covers as well as his own lyrics, the man is no doubt master behind the microphone, a gift honed over some 50 years of performing. There are a lot of great songs he’s written here on this album.
As I was listening to The Proper Years no less than the great Chuck Berry came to mind, the original street poet who could take you on a journey and introduce characters that you knew intimately, all within the context of a 2 to 3 minute nugget of music. Bill Kirchen can pull that sort of thing off. And… y’know what folks? That ain’t easy!
Some of my favorite pieces on this collection so far are the clever duet with Maria Muldaur “Ain’t Got Time For The Blues” which has some charming wordplay going on in it. “Bump Wood” is another sweet affirmation with nifty lyrics celebrating life (or in Bill’s liner note words, an “ode to not being dead yet”) — the notion being happy when you wake up and can move your arms around without bumping against wood (as in the wooden sides of a coffin!).
“Man In The Bottom Of The Well” features Elvis Costello on lead vocals. It is a ripper of a tune which feels like a lost Costello track (and in many ways it is) but it was written by Kirchen!
Kirchen is also a fun interpreter of other’s music so don’t be surprised to hear rollicking covers on The Proper Years including Bob Dylan songs and a fun version of the original hit he played on in 1972 with Commander Cody (which itself was a cover!), the classic “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
For those of you who prefer vinyl there is a great single disc collection called Waxworks – The Best Of The Proper Years which whittles down this collection to two sides of thick, dark-black, well-centered and quiet European-pressed vinyl that sounds real good when you turn it up loud. While I doubt if these were analog recordings at their root, I wouldn’t let that sway you — the way these recordings were produced these recordings sound solid.
I am excited because now I have a whole new artist’s legacy to start exploring and collecting for my collection.
Bill Kirchen is the real deal as a songwriter, singer, storyteller and guitarist. You should check this out. You can find The Proper Years streaming in CD quality on Tidal, but if you like it after sampling the tracks there, do try to buy the LP or CD so the artist makes something on this (remember to support your favorite musicians!).