Somehow, West Side Stories ends up feeling like a cheat. It’s a mystery: despite an interesting sound that combines all the best elements of bluegrass, country, the jazzier style of Tom Waits’ early catalog, even, improbably, elements of late era Pink Floyd into a recognizable but also wholly original style, superb instrumentation that never fails to convey the worn-down atmosphere appropriate to the lyrics and the ghostly vocals of Michael McDermott and Heather Horton, The Westie’s first album just never quite plays right. It’s not that it sounds affected. There are moments, yes, where McDermott lowers himself to cliché: the woozy shuffle and maudlin lyrics of “Hell’s Kitchen” aren’t depressing, they’re bathetic, the soundtrack to a trumped-up tragedy about the kind of urban losers you’d only ever meet in the reruns of some B-grade tearjerker. “Devil” is just one more song about a Faustian bargain that sounds exactly as dusky as anyone could expect.
But for every one such misstep there are another four more where the writing isn’t only original but also confident. And pleasing. For instance, “Train”, which concerns a series of recurrent dreams about trains, has no right to sound as haunting as it does. Such an obvious attempt to restore to trains the mythological dimension they once had as harbingers of change and mystery, as the last promise of mobility left even to the destitute and disgraced, seems like it should buckle under the weight of pretension. It doesn’t, though, carried as it is by a spare arrangement that builds more and more harrowing as McDermott’s whispy vocals grow more and more urgent. At last it’s not about the trains at all, not even about the imagery associated with them or what they represent but about McDermott’s own inability to cope with something – what, he will not articulate; that would give a name to the fear and make it too manageable — lying just beyond all of that. When Horton and McDermott sing on “Fallen” about their falling in love with the other despite their better thinking, so much space and so much time are put between the singers that when they finally do overlap at the end it’s not a moment that demands a cheer so much as a sigh of saddened revelation. That it fades away instead of thunders to a close says so much more about how doomed this prospect is than anything more melodramatic ever could. Again, the way The Westies demonstrate that they have the musical vocabulary to match their emotional concerns. Their talents are by no means minor.
And yet the very things that prove them valuable seem the very thing that could deny The Westies significance. For all the heartbreak and frustration and loneliness on display here, and there is plenty, the singers and players all sound less like people experiencing the worst of it than people reviewing the worst of it with eyes older and more sober. There’s something dirty missing here, an absence of so much of the grime and the blood and the tears that would be unmistakable in a record possessed of less finesse. The Westies are trying to make tearjerkers, here, but tearjerkers need to be so much more immediate than anything The Westies present us with. It might be that the lyrics are too calculated: McDermott’s a story-teller as much as he is a singer. Each song is carefully constructed to get its narrative and its theme across, the result being that each song sounds rehearsed, constructed and so distant.
It’s not that the band should abandon the sound it’s arrived at here; it could simply do with a little more verve and a tad more noise. This is music about people mucking through the shit of life, after all, stories about love left out too long and gone rotten, of low-lives clinging desperately to what little they have. There’s no reason they should come out of it smelling this clean.