The Westies: New York with a West Texas Feel

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.
Rob Weir


Ross Munro: Twisting the Bagpipes Tradition

Twisted Tradition
Greentrax 384

Twisted Tradition might seem like an odd tack to take for a Scottish piper of Ross Monro's pedigree. After all, he apprenticed at the knee of John D. Burgess, MBE (1934-2005), who was renowned for his mastery of the demanding piobaireachd tradition generally associated with formal competition piping. Like his mentor, Munro also joined the British Army and submitted to the rigors of pipe band music, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in Munro's case. If any one person deserves credit for leading Munro down the less-regimented (pun intended) path it's Edinburgh's Iain McKinna, who included Munro and the Royal Guards on the award-winning Spirit of the Glen trilogy that melded military and classical music. Munro retired from the army in 2013, and found himself in McKinna's Offbeat Studio for his first solo endeavor.

Offbeat indeed! A lot of this album is more in the spirit of the mosh pit than competition piping. "The Gravel Path" opens with pulsing electronic sounds evocative of a didgeridoo before Munro kicks up stones with a bold report of notes that turn the path into a racecourse. Whether by accident or desire for wordplay, the next track also suggests Australia, at least in title: "Roo Joey." Like many of the tracks, it features drum loops and midi arrangements. Purists might scoff at such studio tricks, but let's face it–the Highland pipes only produce nine notes and even if you're a skilled master such as Munro and can stretch the range with grace notes and key shifts, it's a challenge to make a solo pipe album sound contemporary. You'll also hear some actual guitar, bass, and drums (McKinna, Ed Lowden), touches of brass, and vocal fill (Kirsty Anderson), but mostly it's Munro, his pipes and his midi. When he wants to sound contemplative, as on "The Dark Island," he overlays some whistle, but this album is about confounding expectations. For instance, Munro takes a serene tune such as "Lexie," lures us into a mellow space, and then breaks into a spirited version of "Jenny Dang the Weaver."  And he definitely has the dance hall crowd in mind with the club tempo of "Funky Paddy" and the boogey-down heartbeat pulses of "High Road to Itchiness." I have no idea what the trad crowd will make of "Cuimhneachan," which is how I imagine hypnotic music for robots to sound. No matter what one thinks of this project–and I like it a lot–Munro is a man of his word. Beware: Ross Munro has doffed his army kit and he's in a tradition-twisting mood!
Rob Weir