Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods Label: Proper
At a glance, you might mistake Bill Kirchen for Woody Allen’s taller, ganglier brother. The combination of the glasses, the nose, and the thinning hair add up to a definite resemblance, and, come to think of it, both guys do share a sense of humor and a love of music. In the long run, however, it’s safe to say that, while Woody’s probably the funnier of the two, Kirchen’s got better musical chops.
Kirchen’s greatest claim to fame (and what got him into the Top Ten in the early 1970s) is his stint as the lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from the late ‘60s through the mid-‘70s, providing the licks for their biggest hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He’s been consistently active since then, working on albums with Hoyt Axton and Doug Sahm as well as recording several solo efforts. Kirchen’s most high-profile gig since the demise of the Airmen, however, has been his work with Nick Lowe. Kirchen and Lowe first met in the ‘70s, and Kirchen was a member of Lowe’s backing band, the Impossible Birds, for several years in the ‘90s. (Lowe once described Kirchen’s guitar work as “a devastating culmination of elegant and funky.”)
Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods - Kirchen's seventh studio album - is his first since 2001, and in addition to achieving an instant nomination in the category of Most Awesome Album Title of 2007, Hammer also provides the perfect remedy for those suffering from a lack of new Nick Lowe material. No, the Jesus of Cool hasn’t written any new songs for Kirchen (though he does contribute bass and backing vocals to the album), but even a cursory listen to the disc will have fans of Lowe’s last few albums noting considerable stylistic similarities between those releases and Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods.
There are a few covers here, including a soulful take on “Devil with the Blue Dress” and a version of Arthur Alexander’s “If It’s Really Got to Be This Way” to close the album, but the majority of the tracks are originals. Kirchen leads off with the twang of the title cut, which namechecks more musicians than you can shake a stick at, then heads into “Rocks into Sand,” where the guitar work finds him performing the best impression of Mark Knopfler circa “Sultans of Swing” you’ve ever heard. Speaking of swing – in this case, the Texan variety – “One More Day” would make Bob Wills proud. It’s back to twangin’ for “Get a Little Goner,” and for all the big, dumb songs that purport to be country music nowadays, it’s nice to have a fun track like this one to remind you what the genre really ought to sound like. “Truth Be Told” and “Soul Cruisin’” are melancholy numbers which possess the most obvious resemblance to material from Lowe’s most recent album – 2001’s The Convincer – and the latter is preceded by “Working Man,” which sounds like something from Lowe’s 1990 release, Party of One. In other words, it’s pretty clear that working with Nick the Knife has not been a bad thing for Kirchen; it’s also put him in the company of pianist Geraint Watkins, who gets a brief turn in the spotlight during “Heart of Gold.”
Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods is a solid addition to Kirchen’s catalog, and while current music trends would seem to lay odds against his making another trip into the Billboard Top 10, it’s safe to count on the album finding its way into at least a few critics’ year-end lists.