'Country Westerns' Review: The band's self-titled debut is as poetic and raw as it is massive-sounding
Country Westerns sound like a mix of REM meets The Replacements, serving up a unique blend of pop, grunge and old-school punk with a hint of country music
One should never judge books (or artists) by their covers, whether we're talking about first impressions or cover versions of songs. Although their name might be slightly misleading, Country Westerns, the three-piece indie rock band from Nashville sound nothing like their name might suggest. Drummer Brian Kotzur (of the 'Trash Humpers' film and Silver Jews fame) and vocalist/guitarist Joseph Plunkett (The Weight, Gentleman Jesse) began working on songs together in 2016, after bonding over their shared desire to be in a band, considering they lived in a city full of solo artists and guns-for-hire. After a couple of years of writing and playing shows with varying line ups, Sabrina Rush (violinist for State Champion) joined the band as their full-time bassist. With the trio's line-up now complete, Country Westerns recorded their eponymous debut album in New York and Nashville, which released on June 26 via Fat Possum Records. They were encouraged by their friend and producer Matt Sweeney, who managed to capture the band’s live energy and even enhances the band’s naturally brash swagger.
Country Westerns serve up a unique blend of pop, grunge, old-school punk and even a hint of country. Their songs are characterized by Plunkett’s full-throated raspiness and twang, with bright 12-string guitar riffs that ring through the mix. Kotzur’s pocket groove drumming and subtle dynamics and Sabrina’s exuberant and harmonic bass playing also play a big factor in these short, catchy rockers which contain poetic lyrics delivered with a punk rock sneer. The music is uniquely fresh while hinting at influences like The Replacements and REM, with a dash of The Bottle Rockets and The Del Fuegos.
The album opens with ‘Anytime’, an upbeat, energetic track that showcases the band's stellar talent. Guitarist/singer Joseph Plunkett’s husky vocal delivery has an endearing quality to it that grows on you. Drummer Brian Kotzur also lays down a steady beat that bassist Sabrina grooves admirably to. The trio sounds much bigger due to Plunkett’s guitar’s being double-tracked, giving the band’s sound a fuller, grittier tone.
‘It’s Not Easy’ rolls in next and this is a mid-tempo, laidback rocker. Plunkett’s guitar playing is unique, channeling a vintage punk ethos with his guitar tone. Special mention must be given to Sabrina's bass playing which greatly shapes the song as the jangling guitar and drums collide. Consistently on top harmonically, she paves way for Plunkett to express himself without any restrictions.
‘Guest Checks’ is up next and kicks in with Plunkett’s throaty narrative. The Nashville influences set to a punk rock mold are highly evident in this song. Plunkett's voice and guitars slowly intertwine in intensity as he approaches the chorus. Sabrina joins in with the backing harmony and the result is quite magnificent. Kotzur’s drumming is expressive and perfectly supports Plunkett’s storytelling.
The next track ‘I’m Not Ready’ was released a couple of months ago with a music video. "Who’s denying, I’m not trying to / Time don’t heal the way it used to," wails Plunkett in his signature style as Sabrina and Kotzur accompany him in this fantastic hook-heavy song. Sabrina’s superb backing and Plunkett’s overdubs pack a lot of power into this track. As usual, Sabrina and Kotzur are locked in tight, as Plunkett rides the rhythm wave, carving up a serving of energetic rock with country hallmarks.
‘Gentle Soul’ has a CCR-style groove with sweeping guitar lines and bright, bouncing bass lines. Plunkett’s gravelly voice emotes a sense of honesty as he sings the words, "I’m just a gentle soul / When you push me I’m willing to roll / I don’t wanna fight with you anymore." A little under 3 minutes, this song is a great example of how Country Westerns manage to build a vivid world of their own in such a short amount of time. Props to Sabrina for another brilliant bass performance.
‘It’s On Me’ is a charming song that while utilizing rock music clichés, manages to sound super fresh. Whether it’s the juxtaposition of the twangy clean guitar with an overdriven lead guitar, or the tight breaks pulled off by the band, or Plunkett repeatedly yelling “I tied my tongue!” with his raspy voice, Country Westerns are in top form throughout.
‘Times To Tunnels’ opens with an intro of warm guitars and drums in union before giving way to the groove. Kotzur lays down a fat rock rhythm sans intricacy and Plunkett settles back into his signature delivery, alongside Sabrina's tight bass interplay. Country Westerns' sound sits at a unique junction alongside bands like Dinosaur Jr and The Replacements. In the band’s own words, they make music that is “Depressing with fun drums”. ‘Times To Tunnels’ perhaps fits that description perfectly.
‘TV Light’ brings back the energy from the earlier songs, with the whole band kicking the track off in unison. Plunkett’s frantic vocal delivery pumps life into this already bouncy song. The repeated refrain “By the TV light”, that Plunkett delivers in a half-spoken, half-shouted style is a great hook. The simple structures and uncomplicated parts not only make their music more accessible but puts the focus more on the energy of the band and the trademark vocal parts.
‘Close To Me’ is a mid-tempo song with some addictive guitar hooks that Plunkett uses to his advantage on the vocals. The layered guitar parts are especially evident on this number. Kotzur’s choice of drum licks and fills are tasty, dressing up the rather straightforward song very well.
‘Slow Nights’ is another mid-tempo outing by the band, carrying more of an Americana vibe, especially with Plunkett’s choice of strumming patterns and the overall tone of the guitar. Sabrina shines with her bass playing on this song and rounds out the bottom end, given that Plunkett has a preference for bright guitars that sit atop the mix. Plunkett also throws in an interesting guitar solo steeped in pentatonic motifs and plenty of mid-range grit.
‘Two Characters In Search Of A Western Song’ is as close to country music as the band gets with this Magnetic Fields cover. Plunkett’s guitars are considerably cleaner and the bass cuts through effortlessly. There’s also an organ accompaniment which sounds great with the full band ensemble. Plunkett’s delivery is more relaxed this time around, and the absence of grit in his voice is noticeable. A twangy guitar solo tops off this lovely rendition by the band, as Kotzur’s measured drumming marches steadily alongside Sabrina's bass playing.
With these 11 tracks, Country Westerns do a great job of capturing their effortlessly raw, charming energy. The signature gravelly vocals, poetic lyrics, and solid rhythm counterpoints make for a very entertaining offering indeed. It's even recommended the listener give their debut album a few more replays to fully absorb its magic.