Plots aplenty

A long-time guard at Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Prison confesses what it’s like to be the “man with the keys,” noting dolefully: “I’ve been called everything from Satan to Jesus.”

A woman obsesses about winning the lottery, shrugging off her overdue rent because she’s sure the jackpot is “as good as hers.”

A little dog confronts a bear, wanting its heavy fur coat for himself — and doesn’t relinquish his mission, even after he’s been eaten and swallowed.

An exotic dancer recounts the ugly stares she receives in a small-town supermarket — from women whose husbands she regularly entertains.

A jaded gas-station clerk finds peace in solitude after leaving her family, her lover and the comforts of home, to live on the edge of a remote mountain town.

These tales, culled from various songs by ever-wandering troubadours Mike West and Myshkin, represent a mere fraction of the couple’s extensive repertoire — both individually and as a duo (they often record and perform separately, though a good portion of their music is made together). Their respective songwriting and singing styles are abruptly distinct: Myshkin’s burns more quickly and leaves a deeper mark; the strength of her vocals is an at-times unearthly force. West, meanwhile, maintains a raffish charm even in serious songs, and an odd vehemence in his more lighthearted fare (check out, for example, the Zen mayhem of “Yard Sale” from his latest CD, 16 Easy Songs for Drill and Banjo (Binky Records, 1999)). The resulting fusion of vision works better than you might expect — works better, in fact, than the sound of most any other folk/rock duo around. Theirs is a blend as smart and self-assured as it is sweetly eccentric.

An England-born Australian who came to fame in the British band The Man from Delmonte, West traded cult stardom for back-porch pickin’ when he moved to America, where he now lives in New Orleans with Myshkin — also a veteran traveler who fronted her own band, Myshkin Impossible, before joining up with West.

The couple makes New Orleans their nest for many reasons, says West, not the least being that “there’s a living history in this city, musicians who were playing in the ’50s who are still alive, still here.” Given the wealth of frank, deep-down joy invested in their music, it’s comforting to imagine this hardworking pair one day adding their names to that time-tested list.

The two are on the road much of the year. During a recent pit stop at home, West revealed in a phone interview that he must store much of his song material, camel-like, until such time as he can commit his ideas to paper.

“I have a place in the back of my head where I put songs,” he explains. “A lot of them are inspired by the people we meet in the places we go, and I keep them back there until I have some spare time and can sit down and hope that some of them come to life.”

Some of those people and places indeed came to life on West’s 16 Easy Songs for Drill and Banjo (which features Myshkin, along with a host of other musicians). One gem is “Travelin’ Salesman” (already a proven crowd-pleaser the last time the pair came through these parts). The song tells the story of a serial father from the point of view of one of his numerous offspring: “I got a sister who’s a judge/Got a sister who’s in jail/One brother is dumb as a rock/The other is at Yale/But Daddy always told us all/’All you can do is try/And you can tell me anything/Just don’t tell me no lie.'”

Not content to settle for merely one family of strings, the always inventive West likes to accompany himself on such self-rigged contraptions as the “gitjo” and the “banjouki.” The title of his new disc (coupled with the fact that he wields a drill on its cover, even if not within its songs) leaves one to ponder the sonic capabilities of America’s favorite power tool as it rests, bristling with potential, in the hands of New Orleans’ consummate musical handyman.

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