True West formed in the early ‘80s in Davis, California, as part of the Paisley Underground (they’ve got formal connections to Dream Syndicate). The group strayed from the local scene for near misses in New York and the UK, but never found mainstream success or that elusive major label deal. Hollywood Holiday Revisited—which collects primarily the group’s mini-LP Hollywood Holiday as well as its first full-length (and only one with all core members) Drifters—reveals the group’s overlooked status to be an unpleasing oversight.
With its psychedelic influences (see most explicitly their first single, a cover of Syd Barrett’s “Lucifer Sam”), True West works as part of that California underground scene, but their frequent comparisons to Television aren’t inaccurate (though there’s fortunately less in the way of jamming here). As the group attempted, they worked with Tom Verlaine on a set of demos. The sessions went poorly and Verlaine never became their producer (and the band never took off), but the three demos included here show a group that could have been equally at home in CBGBs as in the Sacramento Valley.
While the lineage may not actually exist, similarities to the band’s sound also lie farther west than California. A brief stop in New Zealand, maybe, where the Dunedin bands share the jangling guitars that would become more prominent for True West on 1984’s Drifters (the group toured with R.E.M. around this time). A little bit further, though, to Australia and the Go-Betweens. The two groups share a sensibility for writing strong melodies in not-quite commercial pop songs. True West singer Gavin Blair even has a voice similar to Robert Forster’s, which fits just as well in True West’s darker and grimier sound.
It’s while plumbing those murkier grooves and grayer atmospheres that True West sounds its best. Drifters makes for a compelling listen, both moody and tuneful, but its predecessor Hollywood Holiday shows the group at its finest. The less-slick production suits the tone of the performances better, but it’s not merely a matter of DIY or underground aesthetics trumping the pop world (although the Bangles did show the paisley bands which style wins out commercially). Instead it’s the partnering of more droning guitar lines with Blair’s intense vocals that lifts the band up. The music casts shadows fitting for an alley, and the rougher edges and dirtier sound increase the effect of that noirish delivery.
Opener “Steps to the Door” encapsulates that feel. Blair’s vocals are a little low in the mix, letting the guitars surge around him, equal parts injection and drainage. The singer’s “too many steps to that door” to get into the world set the tone of paranoia and inertia, but the band treats the inert position as one of mild craziness. If the singer can’t move to the door, guitarists Richard McGrath and Russ Tolman fidget incessantly even while staying in place. The band follows with “I’m Not Here”, a lyrical twist from the preceding locked in cut, capturing an ontological paradox in the midst of what Tolman fittingly refers to as a “tribal stomp”.
“And Then the Rain”, which appears on both albums on Revisited, epitomizes both sides of the band. It opens with a quick guitar hook that could have shown up in any of the styles True West references, but the song repeatedly dives into its own gloominess, unwilling to match the bright pop perspective of the opening. Blair allows his vocals to become almost overwrought without completely giving way. In its second incarnation, the drums are bigger and the sound too clean: the precision of the recording renders Blair’s near-moan less effective, and the brightness of the instruments don’t reach a point where emotional juxtaposition is possible. Even so, the song fits in perfectly with Drifters, marking the band’s modifications to its sound even as it glances backward.
With True West sorta-maybe back in action, we may not be left with only backward glances at the band, but Hollywood Holiday Revisited contains more than enough rewards for that look. The failed Verlaine demos and UK visa problems at the band’s peak might have derailed the group’s career (Tolman and the band would part before further recording would occur), but it didn’t stop them from putting together some stellar recordings.
// Notes from the Road
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