The rock and roll version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon could very well center around the Foo Fighters. The first degree alone contains such artists as Alanis Morissette, the Fire Theft, and yes, of course, Sunny Day Real Estate. Add to that list guitarist Chris Shiflett’s band Jackson United, which plays songs Shiflett wrote both pre- and during his tenure rocking out with the Foos. But don’t expect Western Ballads to reach the commercial or critical peaks of those aforementioned artists. This record blends into the background more than yellow ochre on a Bob Ross canvas. With one or two exceptions (we’ll get to those), most songs pummel the SoCal pop-punk formula repeatedly with big hammy hands. And the formula, masochistic whore that it is, keeps coming back for more.
Take for instance, the telling “Unchanged”, which begins “Who are you? / I’d love to get to know / I doubt that I will ever get to know.” I doubt I’ll ever get to know Jackson United either. Even the most derivative rock bands can achieve palatable status by having just a hint of character. But where’s the character on Western Ballads, the slightest bit of unique perspective that would make me choose it over a thousand other power-chord clenchers? Anyone know? The closest any song gets to breaking out of gormless adolescent angst is the opening track, “Lion’s Roar”. It’s the only lyrical moment on the record where I feel like I’m seeing the world through Shiflett’s eyes and doing more than rolling mine. “English sunset, sun in your eyes / Dusk sweeps over us tonight / Rainy Brixton holidays / Red brick parks and alleyways / Lion’s roar silenced and still / A test of strength, test of our will.” It doesn’t get more evocative than that, at least for the rest of the album. Compare that wordplay with “Unchanged” which succumbs to moldy post-grungeisms like “I’m so happy / I want to fake my smile / I’ll just hate you / For a little while” and “Do what you want / Do what you please / Take everything / And bleed with me.” Ewww, no!
Musically, Western Ballads has very little western or ballad feel. It is consistently punchy and straight-ahead for most of its 50-plus minutes. “She’s Giving In” distinguishes itself slightly with some neat ‘80s disco-style guitar fills, and a few blink-and-miss-them handclaps, before running back safely into the strong brawny arms of rawk. It’s good fun for a while, and almost evocative enough to help me envision the girl in question. She’s a mess of course, and our hero is tired of rescuing her from the peril (no kidding). We’re never told just what that peril is, but I’m guessing either sour watermelon shots or “artistic” modeling. But just as I’m about to forgive the generalities for love of the song’s goofy charm, I learn that it was all a ruse. To my dismay, the song fades out not to falsetto oohs and ahhs, or a fortuitous increase in handclaps, but lead guitar wanking. I hastily return back to not caring.
The songs all vacillate between self-love and self-loathing. Shiflett’s on his high horse a lot of the time, pointing out “the way you look at me / The questions that frame your insecurity” on “Pure”, and accusing “You don’t know who you are” on “Loose Ends”. But then he beats himself up, “A temporary honesty / Truth is fleeting in most of me / Sorry gets me nowhere today” (“Sharp Edges”). He begins “Long Shadow” by admitting “Another song about you / Swore I wouldn’t do this again.” Well then don’t! It’s that easy! Why flatter this poor girl any further by writing another song about what a messed up bitch she is? She’s not going to listen to it, much less enjoy it, and neither am I. It’s called self-indulgence.
At long last, on the closer “That Curse”, the band conjures at atmosphere worth paying attention to. The lead guitar is genuinely pretty, and the vocals skirt psychedelia with a high lonesome melody that transcends Shiflett’s lyrics. If I were Jackson United, I wouldn’t save that song for the requisite slow burning last waltz. I’d scrap the rest and start there, and see what other true western ballads I could eke out. The spaced-out melancholy feels natural here; it’s a truly good song. The bulk of the rest of the record unfortunately cuts no deeper than a line from the high school reunion cut “OK Alright”: “Ya, I was at that party too.”