Launching his solo career, The Big Heat turned Stan(ard) Ridgway’s pulp fiction/film noir aesthetic — always an element in Wall of Voodoo, the Los Angeles band he formed in 1977 and exited in 1983 — into a full-blown cinematic musical experience. The singer/songwriter’s bizarre characters and tales are as vivid as any vintage Robert Mitchum movie (and as hummable as the actor’s onetime foray into calypso singing). Ridgway changed labels and released Mosquitos, which fluctuates between the expected vignettes of loners and losers (“Calling out to Carol”) and tunes that sound like outtakes from the soundtrack of a Southwestern sci-fi epic. Ridgway’s literary penchant gets a workout on “Can’t Complain,” a musical short story about a couple of down-and-out construction workers, and “Peg and Pete and Me,” which condenses a scenario right out of The Postman Always Rings Twice into five nasty little minutes.
Ridgway describes Partyball as a “party record”; if so, it’s a soirée no one in their right mind would want to be invited to. “Jack Talked (Like a Man on Fire)” is another tale of insanity and alienation, while the rest of the album serves up odes to trigger-happy cops, hopeless love, Harry Truman and the atom bomb, otherworldly chain gangs and plague-ridden dystopias, interrupted by odd instrumental interludes that continue Ridgway’s fascination with soundtrack music for invisible movies.
After those great solo records, Ridgway returned to a group format for Work the Dumb Oracle. Along with keyboardist/singer Pietra Wexstun (who provided backing vocals on Mosquitos and Partyball) and drummer Ivan Knight, he turns in another brooding body of work that views the City of Angels in a jaundiced light that makes Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski look like optimists. The modus operandi is familiar: ghostly harmonica, spooky carnival keyboards, guitars fuzzier than a slab of bacon left out in the desert sun, cholesterol-thick basslines that pound your chest like a coronary and Ridgway’s unique voice, the sound of a rusty nail being pulled out of an old gray plank. The punks, hoods and perverts who people Ridgway’s universe are still out in force, and the music is as chillingly eclectic as ever, with “My Exclusive Sex Club” notably serving up an odd combination of Latin and Arabic licks.