Norway's Darling West Offer an Outsider Perspective on American Musical Styles
Americana duo Darling West focus on the good more than the bad when looking at life's struggles on We'll Never Know Unless We Try. Like Walt Whitman, they hear America singing.
We'll Never Know Unless We Try
7 February 2020
Darling West are a Norwegian husband and wife act who sing in English without a distinctive accent. Mari and Tor Egil Kreken play their mostly acoustic stringed instruments (guitars, banjo, dulcimer) in distinctively American styles. While all musicians pick and choose their influences and who they want to sound like, Darling West's specific inspirations are filtered through the band's very "foreignness". Their outsider perspective allows them to select what elements to engage without committing to them in a way that recalls Jewish composers such as Irving Berlin writing (superficially) Christian songs like "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas" without mentioning Jesus. The duo buys into the trappings of Americana without connecting them to more troubling themes.
There is something very clean and pure about Darling West's sound. Even their name seems precious. The word "darling" can be found in lots of classic country western songs (i.e., "My Darling Clementine", "Hello Darling"), but I doubt anybody born in the U.S. would ever put the words "darling" and "west" together. Imagine an American group with a moniker like "Cute Oslo" or "Dearest Norway"—one would presume the name was ironic rather than literal.
However, sincerity has its merits. The purity of Darling West's sound is their greatest asset. They aren't afraid to be precocious. The harmonies on songs like the cheery "Hey There" and "Make It Last" from their latest album We'll Never Know Unless We Try are invitingly beautiful. And sad songs such as "When Mountains Fall" resonate with a kind of formal grace. Death has a way of being decorous, and metaphorically connecting it to a Biblical apocalypse endows the demise of an individual to the grander scheme of things.
All of the songs were written by the Krekens, except for "True Friends", which was co-written with Aaron Lee Tasjan and Erica Blinn. It's the jauntiest track on the album, with Mari's harmonica riffs and Tor's banjo giving a loose feel to the proceedings. The relaxed vocals on the song fit the topic of camaraderie and the comfort of long-term relationships.
Darling West employed additional musicians on various tracks, including Christer Slaaen on guitar, keys and backup vocals, Thomas Gallatin on drums, percussions, and backup vocals, Kjetil Steensnæs on pedal steel, and Kåre Chr. Vestrheim on vocals, omnichord, and mellotron. The act wrote several of the new songs while they were living in Nashville, as well as when on tour in the U.S. and Europe, before recording them at Propeller Studios in Oslo with producer Kåre Chr. Vestrheim. Each of the ten songs on the record has a clean aural sheen. The album sounds polished, which highlights the duo's smooth delivery, both vocally and instrumentally. That fits the positive sentiments espoused on most of the material.
The best example of this can be found on the ebullient "Try". The song begins with the line, "Some say we won't make it", to which Mari immediately responds with, "We'll never know unless we try." Darling West focus on the good more than the bad when looking at life's struggles. There is a shininess to the record that glosses over the negatives. Like Walt Whitman, they hear America singing. Perhaps that's enough.