The White Buffalo
Once Upon a Time in the West
[ Unison Music Group (2012)]
The White Buffalo is led by Jake Smith, a massively enbearded songwriter possessed with a commanding, rich, bass voice loaded with ethos and heart. When the man says something, you believe it, and it rescues his material—with tales of drinking, fighting, dust, and guns that would have been home in any country & western song since Hank—from charges of cliche. Whether or not Smith actually lived all the hard drinking nights is not really relevant given the gravitas he brings to his narration. The album opens with “Ballad of a Dead Man” and “How the West Was Won,” dirge and stomping bluegrass respectively, and a casual listen might at first have you believing that all it is is storytelling and acting on the part of the singer.
But then he pulls out “BB Guns and Dirt Bikes,” channeling Springsteen through a quaver lifted from Eddie Vedder in his voice, attached to a song about riding dirt bikes with his brother and fighting with the boys from across town. He calls himself and his brothers “Kings of the westside track,” with their mother telling them to be home by dinner. Suddenly all those mentions of “The West” take on a new—much more modern and relevant—meaning. The song is a weird, not quite cute, story of three preteen kids lauching an attack at midnight on their rivals with BB guns and fireworks:
With quivering eyes and our fears and disguise
We called all that would burn in the breeze
We hit the assault howlin’ like hell fire
Ain’t no time to get weak in the knees
Under the cover of night when the timing was right
Like a furious army of three
We light up the sky like a 4th of July
And race home like it was it was a dream
And mama yells where have you been and where are you comin’ from
With my brother and my memory, I bring my history home
The celebratory sound of the song is exactly the way the characters would have felt; and yet it makes things uncomfortable and menacing hearing it as an adult. But it’s an ultimately honest look at the way kids think about war and violence and pride. This honesty is at the center of every lyric on Once Upon a Time in the West.
Though the band provides a solid backdrop throughout, the album is produced with the right focus: Smith’s vocals. It’s front and center in every song, single tracked, with no harmonies. The progression of songs at the end of the album shows off the versatility of Smith’s voice: compassionate and gentle on “I Wish It Was True”; n the harder rocking material (“Good Ol’ Day to Die” and “Hold the Line”), his voice gets a ripped, gutteral quality that sounds quite at home (as long as your home is a muddy ditch); on the slow rockabilly of “Stunt Driver” he sounds every bit as dirty as the fuzzed out slide guitar in the background; and he even pulls off creepy and tender at the same time in Waits-like fashion on “The Witch.”
A truly outstanding album from a unique and superb voice.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)