Shedding a Tentative, Rambling Light on Old Smokey’s ‘Wester Easter’
A bit of a confession. I don’t know much about this record. I only vaguely know who’s responsible (some occasional members of Olivia Tremor Control and Vic Chesnutt’s band, according to the handy sticker on my record jacket). I’m mostly unfamiliar with the myriad influences here, and honestly feel unqualified to speak much about an album filled with music that has only tenuous connections to the worlds I typically deal in. I bought this record on a whim while in Athens, Georgia’s wonderful Wuxtry Records, and only did that because the giant wooden dancer on the cover spoke to me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend (this is a wonderful way to buy records by the way, it has never steered me wrong).
The music here occasionally sounds like folk and classic country. It occasionally sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession, and often like a long lost pre-rock Psychedelic album. Some of it sounds vaguely Native American, but that could be the cover coloring my perceptions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with so much clarinet. I’m reminded of Modest Mouse at times, at their freakiest and folkiest, but I think that says more about my lack of knowledge than it does about the music itself.
Remarkably this mix never feels disjointed from song to song, each shrouded in mystery with influences bleeding together like watercolors. The disparate parts form a heady mix as a banjo-led, middle eastern dirge dives into unconventional yet familiar folk rock. The sharp left turns shouldn’t work on paper, but the album leaves the impression that an underlying presence is at work, and it comes across in the details more than the aesthetic signifiers.
What drives these songs is the sense of barely contained chaos and brooding existentialism in the instrumentation. Banjo riffs attack frenzied and heavy, pedal steel adds a wistful lightness that’s more heartbreaking than uplifting, the percussion, in it’s many forms, plods with a creeping inevitability, while fiddles buzz menacingly. The music is often bracing, even when it’s completely off kilter, but the effect is belied by the coying fullness of the clarinet and horn parts.
These unconventional instruments anchor most of the songs here, thick beams of light teasing out melodies pitched somewhere between schoolyard chants and childish lullabies. They’re the parts most likely to push away casual listeners while being the easiest pieces to get lodged into your skull. It makes for an intriguing dynamic throughout the record. As the base arrangements and lyrics boil over with churning anxiousness and guarded catharsis the horn parts serve to pervert and amplify whatever feeling is at work. They serve as the helping hand in times of need; the unrealistic perceptions we measure ourselves against; the hollow promise behind a tired cliche; a reliable slice of illogical but much needed optimism. The back and forth is fought throughout the record, the end result an uneasy existential truce that feels hard won but well earned.
And yet, after all that poetic waxing, the showstopper of the album does away with that dynamic entirely. “Everyday I’m Building a Fool” has everything a great folk ballad could want; tinges of regret and loss, a self deprecating wit balanced with a slice of unknowable oddness; harmonies suitably gorgeous, coming when least expected but most needed; fiddle playing that is not to be fucked with, and a stomp that hits like the weight of the world falling on your chest at every beat.
Wester Easter is a record that feels like a place to explore. It manages that tricky feat where it brings together the emotions underlying the songs and the details propelling them together to feel like a realized whole, even when the songs feel as if they’re falling apart. Simply put, Wester Easter is a fantastic place to be lost.