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About time he returned

The Analog Bootlegs
The Analog Bootlegs
By Ken Layne

Scrub Jay Records: 2003

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This review first appeared in the Autumn 2003 issue of Turbula.

Before he became one of the leading bloggers on the Internet, before he was editor of San Diego's ComputorEdge magazine, Ken Layne fronted two of San Diego's better roots rock bands – The Outriders and the Road Hogs. He even played with Buddy Blue's post-Beat Farmers band, The Jacks, for a few months, cutting a demo with them that never led anywhere.

Since then, Layne has mostly written off music – making the dubious career move to journalism, despite loud protestation from both music fans and those of us in the writing business who knew what a horrible mistake he was making.

A stubborn cuss, Layne hung up his harmonica and went off to Europe and reported from Prague, and then surfaced as publisher of Tabloid.net, a daily rage on the news. While he still makes his living off his writing these days, Layne has recently returned to music.

Actually, from the evidence on "The Analog Bootlegs," he never stopped completely. The recordings on "Bootlegs" are taken from demo and working tapes Layne laid down from 1991 through '99. So if not performing publicly, he was still writing new songs all along.

And while "Bootlegs" is an uneven collection, with Layne performing in a variety of settings (from Prague to Gilroy) and with a wide-ranging cast, tying all these different strands together is that very solid songwriting of his. Layne has retained the ability he showed with The Outriders to write quirky little tunes that meld striking lyric imagery and memorable melodies. Songs, in other words, that get stuck in your head.

There are 15 of those songs on "Bootlegs," and if "Monkey Cup" is simply too weird to make sense of, the rest are all the kind of earthy musical stories that Neil Young, Tom Waits and Tom Russell have long turned out.

Although actually, there's a lot more Rolling Stones and Lou Reed running through Layne's songwriting (and his singing, for that matter) than Young or Waits. Regardless, it's a ballsy brand of folk music, not the sensitive, wimpy coffee shop variety. Layne's music conveys an attitude of someone who'd much rather break your legs than feel your pain – it's definitely more Hells Angels than flower power.

And it's not all acoustic either – there's an alternative edge to many of the tracks here, as well as an overriding rock 'n' roll sensibility mixed in with the country and blues influences.

"Worried" is perhaps the quintessential Ken Layne song – simple structure with lots of room for improvisation, nice little hooks in the melody to snag your ear, some great harmonica playing, and Layne's Jaggeresque vocals.

But all of the tunes here are of similar caliber – listenable songs telling tales of folks living on the edge of polite society, the kind of people Kerouac and Hemingway and Guthrie wrote about.

Already, "Bootlegs" has served one purpose – it's got Layne playing gigs in Southern California again. Another CD of all-new material with his new band, The Covids, is in the works.

From the evidence here, his return to the music scene ought to be a welcome one.