'WEST SIDE STORIES' by Michael Verity
By their own account, The Westies were born when songwriter Michael McDermott “looked at (Heather Horton) at the end of the bar and said, ‘I don't know whether to kill you or marry you.’" True or not, it’s a fittingly dramatic starting point for a duo whose name and debut album, West Side Stories, are inspired by an Irish gang who wreaked chaos upon Hell’s Kitchen during the 1960s and 1970s.
There’s some good stuff to be heard on this record, starting with McDermott’s voice, a run-roughshod-over-concrete rasp that’s being compared to Springsteen but really sounds like a slightly more polished Willie Nile or a more sentimental Keith Richards. Horton, who sticks to harmonies through much of the record, brings her own element of sexy vulnerability, her whispery voice possessive of the tender-tough qualities of Brandi Carlile. There are also notes of early Springsteen in McDermott’s songwriting, from the time when Bruce was harvesting his work from stories of the streets, not stories from the library.
The opening cut, “ Hell’s Kitchen,” is one of the best of the lot, a muscular ballad of neighborhood dreamers who live in-between “Hell’s Kitchen and heaven’s door.” The gentle acoustic piece, “Say It…,” is also quite strong, a well-written exchange between two tormented lovers. McDermott’s urges for escape translate in trips to the wild west (“Devil”) and the Deep South (“Bars”) but the heart of the matter still stays home “in New York City (with a hint of Tennessee).”
There are times when McDermott’s poetry becomes a little cliched but, for the most part, he knows how to turn a phrase, craft a melody and, in partnership with Horton, deliver a song. Amidst the throng of singing duos -- in which new ones seem to pop up every day -- The Westies are strong contenders for our attention and deserve some of our listening time.