I HAVE A recurring fantasy in which Rainer Ptacek and Robert Johnson are hanging out on some cloud somewhere, fiddling around with their guitars. Rainer, peering out from under the brim of his ballcap, says to Johnson, "Say, Bob, um, did you really meet the Devil that night down at the crossroads?" Johnson lets loose with a loud cackle, shakes his head and replies, "You for real, man? Naw, that's just somethin' me and my friend Willie Brown cooked up to get the chicks. Worked real good for us, too, heh-heh-heh! Hey, what's that riff again, the one with those danged tape loops you was showin' me the other dayä?"
Rainer would've turned 49 yesterday, June 7. Let us hereby toast the man's memory and celebrate the long-awaited, timely arrival of Alpaca Lips, recorded in early 1996 for a proposed release in Europe. It's completion was interrupted, of course, by Rainer's tragic, prolonged 22-month battle with brain cancer. Some time after his death in November of 1997, Rainer's widow, Patti Keating, came across the DAT labeled Alpaca Lips.
With the assistance of some close friends and the folks at Glitterhouse Records, the German label which issued 1995's Nocturnes, she was able to see the project through exactly as her husband intended it, from the song selection and sequencing to the play-on-words album title. (A few of its 17 songs turned up in slightly different form on the DYO Bootleg CD from '96; and covers of "Rude World," "The Good Book," "Rudy With A Flashlight" and "Something's," performed by Page & Plant, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando and Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, respectively, appeared in '97 on the Inner Flame tribute album.)
"Why does his chant sound more relevant than ever?" writes Howe Gelb in the Alpaca liner notes. "Because of his conviction, his intelligence, his love, his choiceäthe music has more life than ever." Indeed. It's an astonishing album that's neither "folk" nor "blues," occupying some rarefied space in between the boundaries of genre. It's also one marked by a subtle series of stylistic arcs and a keen attention to dynamic and textural nuance, a sonic journey in the truest sense. Following a funky introductory instrumental "Here Comes Lilly" (named after Rainer's young daughter) comes a cautionary triad: the droning, wraithlike "Rude World" suggests we pay close heed to those who indiscriminately breed hurt; "The Good Book," driven by a restless, ominous blues twang, bemoans the veiled indiscretions of literal-thinking Bible-thumpers; and Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," with elegant vibraphone and bass accompaniment from John Convertino and Joey Burns, becomes a shimmering meditation on how we wrap ourselves up in trivial pursuits, never noticing how time, so precious, does slip away.
Perhaps mindful of waxing too austerely, Rainer next charts a litany of lighter moments, including the buoyant and visually engaging "Flashlight" (about watching his son Rudy play), the down-home, quirky country blues "Bo Weavil" (a vocal showcase for Rainer, his slurring falsetto swoops are spine-tingling), and the sensual, arresting "Don't Know Why" (a prescient rumination upon Faith, aging and serendipity in which the narrator is ultimately comforted by his realization that "I love you so").
Mid-album comes the show-stopping, improvisational instrumental "Horse Hair." Its nine minutes provides an extended look at the dobro player's fretboard wizardry and tape-loop skills (the delay effect makes him sound like two or three guitarists at once); if you never saw Rainer perform live, this will give you some sense of his virtuosity--his fingers didn't so much sync with what we call "technical skill" as they served as channelers or dowsing rods for something deeper, purer, of the soul.
Yet more highlights fill out the set, of which my personal favorites are the elegiac, almost gospellish "Something's"--the straightforward message of which falls somewhere between "High Hopes" and "Let It Be"--with the final lyrics advising, "Something's got to give/ Maybe you'll be the one to give it." And finally, the Howe Gelb-penned "All Done In," a confessional whose plangent hum and heartbeat pulse brings the album to an appropriately low-key, gentle close.
Alpaca Lips is the first of three Rainer archival discs scheduled for release by Glitterhouse this year. Up next is Live At The Performance Center (recorded in Tucson on June 6, 1997), followed by The Farm (new compositions recorded just prior to his passing). The label is additionally set to reissue 1992's Worried Spirits solo album and the '93 Das Combo-ZZ Top collaboration, The Texas Tapes. With scores more tapes in the vaults, who knows what further musical riches await.
Happy birthday, Rainer. You're still giving us the most unbelievable symphonies.
Alpaca Lips (Glitterhouse Records) is available locally at Hear's Music and Zia Record Exchange; or via Internet (overseas) mail order from the label www.glitterhouse.com.