West Side Stories
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Forget a grain, when you've been reviewing music for as long as I have, you learn to take PR come-ons and pullout quotes with an entire cave of salt. For once, though, someone calls like it is. The Westies are the brainchild of singer songwriter Michael McDermott, whose repertoire is aptly described as "songs of love, betrayal, murder, hope, and redemption." His partnership with backup singer Heather Horton forms the core of The Westies. Toss in some talented sessions players and West Side Stories is a dark, brooding, and raw slice of real life. Well what else would one expect from a songwriter who names his ensemble after a Hell's Kitchen gang from the '60s/70s who came pretty close to pulling some hard time of his own. Mix in a dose of the Irish shanachie tradition and filter it through American outlaw country music and you're on the right track. The only curve ball is the album title; West Side Stories has songs set in the Big Apple, but more from its bad core side, and it detours to places such as Texas, Mississippi, Michigan, and Wyoming–the latter being the location for the song "Devil," where the song's anti-hero meets Old Nick "with his jailhouse tattoo and gold teeth grin" in a cheap bar and leaves with his soul bargained away.
McDermott's emotive and strong voice sounds as if its filtered through hard living, anguish, and emotions that gestated in the gut, not in some mythical Valentine-shaped organ. His pas de deux duet with Horton on "Say It" is a love song, but not the hearts and coronets variety. Theirs is a dance of passion, but with doubt firmly in place. And when McDermott reveals "These Dreams About Trains," his somnolent flights freely mix pleasant dreams and nightmares. That is to say, his trains carry people rushing home to loved ones, those fleeing shattered hopes, and even a casket or two. And forget those hokey country bar songs; McDermott's "Bar" is a place where "I hit the bottle so hard… it hit me back." Smart stuff. Call it the West Side of New York by way of hardscrabble West Texas.