THE ALBUM: DAVID LINDLEY, El Rayo-X (Asylum 5E-524).
If Ry Cooder is the Smithsonian Institution of Rock, surely David Lindley is Disney World.
Sunny, clean and quasi-eduational, Lindley's first solo album, "El Rayo-X," is populated with enough exotica to give it a mildly international feel, but the overall ambiance is quintessential Americana.
Not that these are novelty tunes, you understand. Anyone with a history as musically diverse as Lindley's (five-year winner of the Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contest, three years with Kaleidoscope, a stint with the Youngbloods, two years in England with country/rock singer Terry Reid, a duo with Jackson Browne, then several years as a member of Browne's band, session work with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash, Rod Stewart, Warren Zevon, Ry Cooder, yadda-yadda-yadda), understands how to avoid the studious approach to alternative musical forms without necessarily resorting to silliness.
Let's just say Lindley has a mischievous streak several light-years wide. How else to describe someone who takes a Tex-Mex melody about (ahem) achieving sexual relief, puts two hallowed ska/reggae artists (Ras Baboo and Ian Wallace) in charge of the beat and then has surf-music fugitive Smitty Smith bespatter the whole thing with a Vox/Farfisa? Precisiouly what Lindley has done with "She Took Off My Romeos."
Then there's "Petit Fleur," a zydeco love ditty in which Lindley sounds like a Calcasieu Parish crawdad-racer in the throes of heat prostration. This tune is so maddeningly catchy that one finds oneself singing along, despite the utterly nonsensical lyrics, printed on the lyric sheet in what can only be described as phonetic Cajun (sample rhyme: "Et ton bra san ma joie/Le cochon ne c'est moi").
There's more absuridy to be found on Bob "Frizz" Fuller's "Quarter of a Man," this time set to a wonderful reggae swoon: There's a quarter of a man in the market With a quarter of a car So it's easy to park it When he gets to the counter He saves what he can By he only saves a quarter He's a quarter of a man. In spite of the dismal/hilarious lyrics, Lindley punctuates the spaces between verse and chorus with an "Oh" so miserably monotone it evokes laughter as well as sympathy for the Chaplinesque protagonist.
Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's "Bye Bye Love" is handled here with the swamp-rock smoothness of its pre-Everly Brothers incarnation -- Ras Baboo's reggae-tinged accordion providing a sort of I-Tal Tabasco. Lindley doesn't even let such all-American chestnuts as "Mercury Blues" and "Twist and Shout" get away without a modicum of cross-cultural mutation, and his version of Smokey Robinson's "Don't Look Back" is a dizzingly delicious soul/R&B/Tex-Mex/ reggae salad.
The bio material bruits the fact that Lindley studied voice with Mark Forest for more than a year. I don't know how that affected Forest, but it doesn't appear to have damaged Lindley's natural honk much. Only Joe Walsh could compare vocally to Lindley, who sounds as if he's singing through copper tubing stuffed with socks. It'll never do if he gets an itch for Vegas, but it's perfect for this material, as is his deft, taco-flavored guitar playing.
The obvious bond between Cooder and Lindley is their mutual love of American music as taken from a variety of cultural perspectives. The obvious difference is that where Cooder strives for a certain purity, both of history and sound, Lindley loves nothing better than to jumble the elements until they create their own little fantasia. This can be somewhat disorienting at first listen, but it's a nice contrast to the over-weening reverence with which many musicians still tend to approach non-American roots music.
"El Rayo-X" is not this year's greatest album, but there's very little to compete with it for well-executed let-the-good-times rock. Coming from a fellow who's spent the last few years comtemplating Jackson Browne's elbow, it's a delightful surprise -- sort of like rounding the corner at the Haunted House and bumping into a six-foot Goofy.