No Depression - The Westies, West Side Stories


by John Ellis
February 10, 2015

To help keep my music reviews from becoming a shell game, I decided about a year ago to only review albums that I like. I mean, really like – enough so that I would be willing to act as the de facto marketing department for the musicians. Think of that what you will; I have never pretended to be an objective music “critic.”[1] In fact, I submit that any reviewer who claims a high level of objectivity is either lying to him or herself or flat-out deceiving his or her readers/listeners. Music is deeply personal, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

Keeping the previous paragraph in mind, it’s a rare day that my inbox doesn’t see at least one mp3 file containing an album that a band or publicist is hoping that I’ll review. When I cover concerts, musicians in the audience slip me copies of their CDs or, at the least, a business card. I get it. The music marketplace is filled with indie bands trying to elbow some space into people’s Spotify accounts, hoping, in turn, that Spotify will translate into more friendly faces at their concerts and more album sales from their bandcamp page[2]. I wish that I could help them all out.

Even though I shy away from writing negative reviews, I still feel the tension as a gate-keeper of sorts – deciding which albums I will or won’t help provide some exposure, even the tiny little bit of exposure that my writing generates. I’m not that prolific of a writer, though; combined with the fact that there are releases from established bands/musicians that I want to review. And, referencing the above paragraph, I can’t, in good faith, recommend much of what crosses my path. That’s the hard truth. Unfortunately, I write about very few of the above mentioned mp3 files.  This means that when I click “play” on a new album from a largely unknown band and that album excites me, I not only want to write about the album, I want to go around and personally encourage people to check out that album. In other words, if one day soon you answer your door to find me standing there, playing tracks off of West Side Stories by The Westies, it’s because I believe that not enough people read this review and I’m afraid that future fans are missing out.

The Westies take their name from the real-life gang that reigned over Hell’s Kitchen in the not so distant past – think The Godfather but Irish-American. I’ve got to be honest, as much as I love the name and its connection to a tangible cultural identity and ethos, not to mention the thick drama that surrounds the name, if I were in the band, I’d be a little worried that a member of the original non-musical The Westies would take umbrage. Thankfully, the music is awesome enough that I imagine that as punishment, in that probably unlikely yet still possible scenario, the ruthless The Westies would force the musically gifted The Westies to be their house band. Maybe that’s what Michael McDermott and company are hoping for, I don’t know. I do know that I love their album, West Side Stories, and have been listening to it for two days straight.

As I’ve been writing the four previous paragraphs, I’ve been wracking the musical memory banks of my brain in order to come up with a description of McDermott’s voice that isn’t “the best of Tom Waits combined with the best of Bruce Springsteen.” For one, I’m sure that his voice gets compared to Waits, Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan, Bill Mallonee, Joe Cocker, et al. on a fairly regular basis[3]. Two, whenever I write (or read, for that matter) comparisons to the greats, it always feels a bit disrespectful - to all concerned. Like many of the greats, though, McDermott is as much storyteller as he is a singer. The stories are entrenched in the deep grooves of McDermott’s rasp, and, thankfully, his skillful pen writes lyrics that compliment his vocal ability.

Heather Horton has the other half of the vocal duties. There is a sweetness in her voice that’s brought back to earth by a quality that speaks of lost time and bruised faith. Together, McDermott and Horton make music that demonstrates how closely related inner city grit and grime is with the softness of a serene Appalachian mountaintop. Americana doesn’t just belong in rural settings; West Side Stories is Americana music embedded in the rivets of Rust Belt cities with connections to Ireland, coal streaked miners, and dirt under their fingernails sharecroppers.

Buy West Side Stories here:

[1] Also, I’m not sure what purpose negative reviews serve.

[2] For the record, for the very LOUD record, I insist that if you create a Spotify station around a band/musician, you’d better damn well buy their album(s)! FYI – I’m working on an article about Spotify.

[3] I’m resisting the urge to Google reviews of The Westies to see. One, I’m afraid that’s it’s true, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight out of a fear that I am a completely unoriginal music critic. Two, I’m afraid that it’s not true, and I won’t be able to sleep tonight out of a fear that I’m an idiot.