A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Defining sub-genres like folk-rock is often more complicated than stating the obvious: folk-rock is folk music performed on rock instruments. Many factors, including styles of harmony and layered guitars, contribute to the folk-rock sound, but many people would hark back to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Bob Dylan, to define what folk-rock should or shouldn't be. Western Electric's self-titled debut includes ringing guitars, soaring harmonies, and pedal steel to create folk-rock that reaches back to the 60's while developing its own sound.
The defining element of Western Electric's sound is Rob Childs' and Neil Robert Herd's pedal steel playing. It is prominent on almost every song, but it doesn't overwhelm the listener with its presence (call it the dominant sound within the tapestry). It's laid-back, similar in style to the steel work on early Steely Dan albums (Can't Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy). One might think that the presence of the pedal steel would create a country or country-rock sound, but the expansiveness of the playing and the structures of the songs never suggest anything remotely country.
If the style of music often suggests that its roots lie in the 60s, the lyrics go even further to create that impression. The songs are overtly romantic, often about love or lost love. This undoubtedly reflects Sid Griffin's sensibility, since he is - both alone and with others - the primary songwriter on this album. When I'm Out Walking With You is an unabashedly happy love song. Griffin uses pastoral images of the sun and corn, of country lanes and friendly farmers, to paint the beauty of the moments the couple spend together. Emily In Ginger, also by Griffin, is a darker love song, filled with unsettling (and somewhat violent) imagery. The pedal steel floats above a steady percussion to create a dream that glides effortlessly for over seven minutes.
This same dreamlike trance is replicated on Whirlwind, a seven-plus minute song of love lost by Griffin and Elliot Murphy. On first listen, the leisurely pace can almost lull the listener into allowing the music to fade into the background. A similar "relaxed" pace repeats itself on 10-4 (Pat McGarvey) and Carousel Day" (Sid Griffin and Pat McGarvey). One may be reminded of the leisurely pace found on certain cuts of late 60s and early 70s rock albums like In the Court of the Crimson King and Dark Side of the Moon. Like these albums, even Western Electric's darker lyrics remain romantic.
Even the one non-band member song, Straight From The Heart, written by Gene Clark and sung with the help of Robyn Hitchcock, fits into the band's lyrical and musical vision. Clark's song also helps to certify Western Electric's folk-rock credentials. Fans of Sid Griffin will also know of his former band, the Coal Porters (who recorded a live Parsons' tribute). Four members of the Coal Porters, Griffin, McGarvey, Bob Stone, and Rob Childs, are also members of Western Electric.
Western Electric's experienced band members have created a layered sound and a strong first release. It should appeal those who have a strong pull toward the more expansive rock of the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s. To some, the lyrics and happy soaring vocals will clash with modern, and perhaps more cynical sensibilities, but there should already be numerous bands with dour lyrics to please that crowd. For those who haven't become hopelessly cynical, Western Electric's debut will offer a refreshing change of musical scenery.
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Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz