I don’t know Boo Ray, but I suspect he’s the kind of guy who makes a nice girl want to stay up late drinking whisky and considering a coast-to-coast motorcycle ride. “I ain’t no good time, I’m a blast,” sings the Athens/Asheville by way of Los Angeles and (originally) Cullowhee musician on his new album, Bad News Travels Fast. And Ray does a good job selling that statement, from his slow drawl and smart lyrics to his rocker chops and star-studded cast of collaborators (e.g., members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Porno for Pyros contributed to Bad News).
Tracks range from snappy, snare-and-mandolin-driven burners to gritty waltzes and rocked-out Cajun syomps. Not only does Ray touch on all the places he’s lived — from the deep South of the Gulf Coast to the deep South of California — but instead of simply regurgitating regional sounds, Ray seems to draw from the very mythologies, ghosts and dirty secrets of these places. “With your high heels and your fast talk, I saw you on a sidewalk, neon, you looked like a song,” he sings on “Six Weeks in a Motel.” (That song, by the way, captures exactly the sexy-anguished-delightfully-sleazy pitch that that Kid Rock aims for but, even in his best twangy-duet-with-Cheryl Crowe-moment, can’t touch.) He sings, “You sound like Baton Rouge and girl I feel ya; there’s no one looking, baby, I’m gonna steal ya,” on Louisiana-haunted “Constantina;” the woman so palpably longed for just a metaphor for the way certain geographical locations hold sway on the psyche.
Bad News plays, start to finish, with so much swagger that, at first listen, the album is almost too much fun to notice how good the writing and instrumentation is. Listen again (it’s a scant nine songs, all of which fly by far too quickly) — Ray (whose vocal style calls to mind critics darling Joe Henry) can back his carefully crafted bad boy image with solid talent. Plus, Circle Jerks’ Zander Schloss playing mandolin & bouzouki: Who knew?! That’s as awesomely crazy as Tommy Ramone playing banjo.
On his blog, Ray references “truckstop R&B,” which would actually be a great classification for his personalized twist on roots/Americana. There’s still room for growth — Ray occasionally relies on cliches (“fools rush in where angles fear to tread”) though he has the creative capacity to transcend such crutches. This is, after all the, the guy who penned the lines, “You wear your clothes like a knife in a sheath” and “The letter I wrote, did you receive it — I wrote it all down in black and blue.” Also, the paired-down Dylan-esque (namely, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) end track “Not Dark Yet” doesn’t match the dynamism of the rest of the album. But highlights throughout the album are plentiful, from the tone-setting opener to the tangy, syncopated “Bird on a Wire.”
Boo Ray plays the Watershed (207 West State St., Black Mountain, 669-0777) on Saturday, April 3. Boo Ray and his band perform with rocker Woody Wood. 9:30 p.m., $5.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter