No doubt “Howie,” the detached boomer of this ironic album’s title track, drives the cool vintage Jaguar on its cover. The stylish song correlates to the arresting image. Style, too, informs many of the metaphors in the vocal numbers master guitarist Wayne Krantz sprinkles over his 10th album. Howie 61 also is homage to “Highway 61 Revisited,” a Bob Dylan tune from 1965 that remains startling (best version: Johnny Winter’s on Second Winter).
This is a fusion disc with more than its fair share of sparks, but it is less big bang than insinuation. While Krantz’s guitar is consistently compelling and his choice of sidemen is impeccable, tunes like “Can’t Stand to Rock” and “U Strip It” are problematic. These rock tracks cover territory more creatively mined by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Critters Buggin’. But even they move, and David Binney’s sensual sax warms the latter.
What Howie 61 does best is purvey Krantz’s sure editorial hand; while this collection of tracks with varied personnel evokes many different groups, among them Steely Dan and the Jeff Beck Group (with vocalist Bobby Tench), it’s always identifiable as Krantz. His signatures—phased guitar, explosive overtones, a touch spanning the ghostly and the majestic—course through it. His vocals are back in the mix; sometimes that’s effective, sometimes just irritating. But Krantz comes through large at the end, proving there’s life after the morbid “I’m Afraid That I’m Dead” and the tentative “I’d Like to Thank My Body.”
“beLls” is an echo-laden, phase-shifting instrumental, paving the way for “How the West Was Left,” a high, lonesome tune with abstract lyrics, Krantz’s boldest guitar washes and vocals by Krantz and Gabriela Anders that are the album’s most passionate and mysterious. Rounded out by Pino Palladino’s plummy bass, “How the West” is a gorgeous enigma and a perfect cap for this fascinating album