Music

The Westies: West Side Stories

Michael McDermott's newest project is off to a promising start. If only it was a little more difficult.


The Westies

West Side Stories

Label: Pauper Sky
US Release Date: 2015-01-20
UK Release Date: 2014-05-06
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Music

Inventions' 'Continuous Portrait' Blurs the Grandiose and the Intimate

Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium side project, Inventions are best when they are navigating the distinction between modes in real-time on Continuous Portrait.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.