Monday, February 24, 2014

Album Review: Any Day Now by The Far West

The Far West has just released the eagerly awaited follow up to their critically acclaimed, self titled debut. The new album, Any Day Now, is well worth the wait and should easily be an early contender for Americana album of the year. Led by Lee Briante's haunting, haggard, and heartfelt vocals, The Far West lays down a baker's dozen of modern Americana classics. Continuing the trend from their first album, the band plays songs about heartaches and hard times: straight, with no chaser. With songs like, "Walk Light On This Poor Heart," "These Arms Will Be Empty," and "She's Gonna Leave Him Too," you know you're not going to find many happy endings here. Even songs like, "Bright Side" and "Oh, Love" are deceptively titled as Lee sings, "I just can't see the bright side anymore," and "Oh love, I'm giving up on you."
But taking a cue from Johnny Cash, The Far West add a little rhythm to their blues on this album. With nearly half the songs played in mid to uptempo, the songs don't bog down in despair. Instead, they give the impression of someone who has overcome the pains of their past, and can pause to reflect on them even as they're moving forward. In "Words From A Letter," for instance, they sing "I'm sorry I'm asking your forgiveness. You were right and I was wrong all along." But despite the sadness implied by the lyrics, the song is played Western Swing style. And in the end we find that the apology and the plea for forgiveness are all just "words from a letter I'll never send." Again, in "Oh, Love!" they sing "love is like a deal that just went bad." even as they play barrel house piano and sing backup vocal harmonies to soften the sting of love's poison arrows. The song "Leonard" tells the story of a hard luck hustler following his dreams. With a Squirrel Nut Zipper "jazz-grass" sound, they make lyrics like "Have you ever felt like you just can't win? Someone calls your bluff when your chips are all in," sound downright cheery.
And it's that musical diversity that makes this band and this album stand out. Americana is largely a lyric dominated musical form. It is the poetry more than the passion. But too many current Americana artists end up sounding the same, song after song. They get so caught up finding the perfect rhyme for "malaise" that they forget to vary their chords or tempos. But not The Far West. From the chooglin' freight train rhythm of the opening track, "On The Road" to the "Dylan meets R.E.M" sound of "Wichita," The Far West keep surprising the ear with new rhythms and musical arrangements. Each song is new, fresh and memorable (Take a listen to the otherworldly percussion arrangement on "Forged In Iron" if you need more proof.) And of course, the rock steady rhythm section and expert guitar work are capped off by Lee Briante's distinctive vocals. (For my money, the best Americana vocalist this side of John Howie of Two Dollar Pistols.) Lee's voice is especially showcased in the sparse lament, "Post and Beam."
With masterful songwriting, musicianship, and vocals, Any Day Now is an album I'll be listening to for many days now.

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