Quick Disclaimer: In an effort to get reviews done in a timely fashion (i.e. the opposite of what I do now), I will not be able to review each song from full-length releases. I will be reviewing five songs from every album, regardless of length. Onward!
The West is a band I’d heard about for quite a while before I actually heard them. They were playing choice shows around the Seattle area with a lot of my friends and the reviews kept coming back the same: The West is legit. So when Anthony Darnell (vocals/guitar/keys) was nice enough to give me a copy of their new album, I was ready to be impressed. And after hearing “In Low Light” about 35 times and seeing them live a I can tell you…The West is legit.
The band was formed in 2010 by Anthony Darnell and Bob Husak (former drummer of Seattle favorites, The Blakes) before expanding to include Reed Griffin on lead guitar (former Blakes producer), bassist John Swihart and Darnell’s wife and collaborator, Adrienne Clark on keys and vocals. The band released their debut effort “Don’t Make a Sound” and generated genuine excitement, receiving airplay on KEXP and accolades from the local press.
Their follow up, “In Low Light” finds a band comfortable in their experimentation. The West has a Party-Indie vibe, remiscent at turns of LCD Soundsystem, New Order and even Bowie. To their credit and my great listening satisfaction, the band has carefully avoided the rampant clichés of the genre and established a sense of arrangement that isn’t easily accessed on Clear Channel World Fucking Radio.
L to R: Jon Swihart, Reed Griffin, Bob Husak, Adrienne Clark, Anthony Darnell
There is theatricality to the presentation, which heightens the tension and adds some grit to the tracks. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that Anthony Darnell has a background in acting. The beats are danceable on every track, the bass and drums romancing the groove, as Darnell and Clark at turns spit some pretty serious fire over the top. You can easily shake your ass to this but understand one thing: you are shaking to the sounds of serious sadness. Distrust, betrayal, rejection…alienation is the central theme at work here. I generally don’t ask artists to explain their lyrics but my guess is that someone somewhere is not on the Darnell/Clark Christmas card list.
“In Low Light” is a 10-track, full-length record. I’ve picked 5 tracks to review but highly recommend that my readers use the music player at the top of this post. This is a complete effort and context is important. That said, onto the tracks…
“You’re in Control” is the second track from the record. An ominous and foreboding synth part enters abruptly and is quickly joined by a tom-heavy beat. Another layer of eerie synth, kinda reminiscent of a spy soundtrack, joins the mix before Darnell pointedly sings “Hand on your heart like you were swearing the truth. Explain the story from your point of view. Answer my question, don’t hestitate”, before Clark and bassist Swihart join him, “Are you a killer? Are you a saint?” Remember that whole thing about distrust and alienation? The hook is killer, the harmonies are spot on and the lyrics are like a dart aimed at the heart of the matter. Emotional disaffection is all the rage these days, as you probably well know. I admire sincerity in modern rock and it’s here in abundance. The work of Swihart on bass and Bob Husak on drums is exceptional, the breaks flow effortlessly from one to the other.
“You Won’t” is the fourth track and starts with a burst of guitar riffage before giving way to a ridiculously tight club groove. Seeing them play this song live is like musician porn. Adrienne Clark’s keyboard hits on the off beats while the bass and drums dance around it with precision and force. Darnell and Griffin’s guitars syncopate beautifully. Betrayal takes center stage again as Anthony sings “Smoke me down like a cigarette that you are holding like a weapon in your hand.” Damn. He continues, “You won’t ever answer”. Have you ever been wounded by someone so badly and they won’t even look at you, much less account for how they’ve hurt you? The music mirrors the sense of astonishment and anger. Husak’s cymbal work during the breaks is great, incidentally.
“Another Story” follows “You Won’t” and goes in a decidedly different direction. The club hooks of the previous tracks are not on display here. This is a mid-tempo indie rock song and a good one. A minimal tom beat and descending bass part begin the track before Clark’s synth hook joins them. Darnell and Reed Griffin’s guitars are heard shortly thereafter, one mirroring the descending bass notes and the other melodically reinforcing the chords. The lyrics take a different tact here as well. “And she was breathing in my ear. And she was breathing very slowly. A whispered lullaby. Every night is another story.” Fascinating. The anger and betrayal is gone. This narrative sounds weary and captivated to me. It’s impossible to say what this could be about but The West crafts really provocative lyrics, that is for DAMN sure! Darnell continues during the chorus “And she was dreaming about herself” as Clark sings softly, “Never wanted never needed nothing else.” Be it femme fatale or some other such thing, I want to know more.
“Hustler” is the eighth track and breaks the mold for The West again. I love this track for a couple reasons. 1) I love “Pink Flag” by Wire (if you haven’t heard Wire, get real for Christ’s Sake. Click here and get up to speed like now) and the guitars on this song have a very Wire-esque feel to me. 2) I feel like this song, for whatever reason, may not get the appreciation it deserves because it is late in the record and less club-friendly than some of the other tracks. It just SOUNDS like a deep cut.
The track starts off gritty and stays there, guitars, bass and drums spinning together like a washing machine. “I like your knee-highs, the Polaroid stare. You’re looking through me like I’m not even there. I want to move you like those girls on TV. Disturb the stillness cause you look too serene.” If you’ve been in a band long enough in Seattle, there isn’t a lot of explanation necessary. Darnell’s vocals are bolder, almost goading here. “But oh no, you won’t dance at all. I see you standing on the dance floor.” For all the talk of Seattle’s place in rock history, the city is now infamously a haven for the tragically hip who can’t be bothered to show even a slight interest in the bands they are paying to see. It’s a conversation I’ve had with so many people so many times, whether you agree or not. The West does, apparently.
“In Low Light” closes the album and appropriately so. The track seems to combine most, if not all, of the elements of the previous songs on the record. Great synth hooks, well-placed dance beats, and the great guitar interplay that those listening to the record have no doubt observed by this point. The song serves as a great bookend to what the West has accomplished and what they have on the horizon. “Close your eyes, take a breath, let go of all this aggravation. Close your eyes, fall asleep, nothing compares to the satisfaction. Here they come, we don’t know anyone, but alright.” Striking a hopeful note musically, this songs sounds like an artist taking the ultimate plunge into uncertainty. Darnell closes the track passionately exhorting the listener to “Let it die!” Let what die? The past? Fear? The distrust and alienation so present on the rest of the record? As with all good art, I take my own meaning and make a note to trap Anthony Darnell in a basement someday and, under great duress, force him to explain it all….
Records like this give me faith that I am not the only one who cares about lyrics. I know that sounds strange to some but as a lyricist myself, it’s jarring how often the words are missed or ignored. The West stands out to me as a band of nuance, their musical composition is nothing short of professional. Dynamic tension is so critical to a great record and its abundance here made me smile. Darnell and Clark (who sings lead on several songs that I was not able to review due to space limitations) both command the main vocal role with passion, agility, and a sense of genuine urgency.
“In Low Light” is an album Kurt Vonnegut could appreciate. The thought of well-funded college hipsters dancing the night away to the exorcism of a person’s soul is just the kind of twisted irony he found so amusing. I’m inclined to agree. The West have documented the dance floor and all its internal politics as well as anyone I can remember.
The West Official Website: http://www.bandthewest.com