Country Westerns Bask in an Unparalleled Sound and Energy on Their Debut
Country Westerns are intent on rejecting assumptions about a band from Nashville while basking in an unparalleled sound and energy.
26 June 2020
Don't go into Country Westerns' self-titled debut expecting twangy back-porch music. Calling the group Country Westerns is a misnomer. The three-piece band from Nashville delivers riotous rock 'n' roll leaning more towards the Replacements than Dwight Yoakam. Drummer Brian Kotzur (Trash Humpers, Silver Jews) and singer-songwriter-guitarist Joey Plunkett (The Weight, Gentleman Jesse) began collaborating in 2016. Writing and performing music was meant to be an outlet for the two musicians, a method to release pressure, write songs, and hit-up Nashville's DIY party scene. Shortly thereafter, Sabrina Rush (State Champion) joined as a bassist, although she was inexperienced with the instrument. Despite the blasé beginnings, Country Westerns delivers a musically rousting album that is at once catchy and gritty.
If not listening closely, the fierce musicality can obscure the sensitive and affecting lyrics. "Gentle Soul" is wistful, especially when Plunkett laments, "I don't want to fight with you anymore." Whereas the vulnerability is short-lived, the righteous indignation is palpable throughout the track. "Gentle Soul" is as angry as it is sad, an accurate portrayal of heartache. Country Westerns are decidedly self-aware. The band know they are blurring vulnerability and rage as exhibited in "Times to Tunnels". The lyrics, "It ain't a boast in the least / It's just a plea for grace / Full of honesty, this rage and me", provokes authentic self-consciousness.
On top of the engrossing lyrics, Country Westerns uses the album to showcase their musical alacrity. Kotzur's drums on "Guest Checks" is rough and shrewd, the ideal counterpoint to Rush's melodic bass. Plunkett's guitar accentuates their stability with a rawness that melds into while deflecting Kotzur and Rush. Their musical charisma is extenuated on "It's on Me" and "Anytime". Whereas the former is comparatively understated in its rock 'n' roll energy, the latter roars.
Their music is so involved it's possible to forget about Plunkett's vocals. However, his vocal imperfection remains relevant and is flawlessly interlaced with the instrumentation, creating a devilish multi-layered album. Plunkett's vocals typically stay within the cacophonous raggedness associated with punk rock. There is a modicum of twang, so deliberate it's almost cloaked as in "Slow Nights". The subsequent "TV Lights" and "Close to Me" features an apt balance of sneer and nasality, ultimately closing the album with the reminder that there is some country among the rock 'n' roll. It's buried, but it's there, serving as an accent rather than emphasis. Although, the country sensibility isn't enough to redeem these three tracks that are unimagined in their delivery of quotidian lyrics and uncharacteristically formulaic instrumentation.
"I'm Not Ready" discloses a type of maturity that is hard-won from grizzled life experiences. There are notes of disgust when Plunkett utters, "Cut down to the scar / That's how you got where you are / And you'll always wear the mark of every cheap scene every bar." It's never revealed whether the agitation is directed at himself or the past. Accordingly, the music video suggests it's neither. "I'm Not Ready" was shot at the now abandoned and decrepit Starwood Amphitheater, a once venerated spot for big-name musical performances. Starwood shuttered in 2007 as part of Live Nation's move to close-down mid to small-sized theaters to focus on global markets. A likely ploy sugared by marketing gurus to validate charging higher ticket prices for bigger venues. Hence, Starwood was an innocent casualty of capitalism. As such, the track's lyrical cynicism and vocal repulsion are not personal; it is Country Westerns' yearn for a bygone cultural icon.
Country Westerns close with a cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Two Characters in Search of a Country Song". The track is based on the 1921 play "Six Characters in Search of an Author" by Luigi Pirandello. A piece of meta-theatrical absurdism, Pirandello explores the reality of the audience juxtaposed to the perceived reality of the characters — or "theater of the theater". The Magnetic Fields and Country Westerns similarly toy with the space between reality and illusion. Country Westerns expose songwriting as a fictionalized landscape, often reiterative of tradition.
"Two Characters in Search of a Country Song" is intentionally conventional in its use of country music themes, even name-dropping Calamity Jane, Jesse James, and Wild Bill. More so, the title alone reflects the band's origin story. Yet Country Westerns' astute rock 'n' roll boom subverts predictability. For Pirandello, his play was an allegory for the theater, a radical act in dismantling the conventions of playwriting. Likewise, Country Western is intent on rejecting assumptions about a band from Nashville while basking in an unparalleled sound and energy.