With his long-time drummer and creative partner Matt Briggs, Zack Walther reassembles his eponymous band to release The Westerner, an LP comprised of 10 songs (seven of them new) in the Texas-steeped sound of blues-country rock. Mike Atkins (keys, bass, vocals) joins the duo along with a number of other musicians, creating a diverse set of tightly composed tunes that—with the exception of one five-minute song—all range from three to four minutes in length. Recorded at Briggs’s studio, the tandem incorporate a bevy of instruments and vary their voicings in such a way that no two songs sound the same. They also demonstrate a great grasp of the importance of space and nuance in music, and thus avoid the common pitfalls of oversaturation and overproduction.
The instrumentation is excellent, even if technical virtuosity rarely displayed. There is a sense that it is present, but eschewed in favor of featuring the dual foci of Walther’s soulful voice and his direct, but witty lyrics. The album is about songs, not pageantry. Harmonies and backing vocals abound, both from the core members of the band and backing singers. There isn’t one track in the set where Walther’s voice is alone, and the backing singers are usually lending a hand.
Leading with the single “D F W,” the band hints at their goal of providing an authentic listening experience by opening the song with amplifier noise, and heading directly into the main guitar-riff that is joined by a tight, unison synth harmony. The nifty pairing underpins a clever retelling of a tryst. It is easily accessible with simple, but great backing vocals. “What Kind of Man” haunts with chopping piano and deeply reverberated guitar that imbues the more traditional number with an eerie, swampy feeling. One of the album’s best, it showcases Walther’s vocal abilities and cuts through with a heavily distorted, albeit brief guitar solo.
Beginning with the backing vocals, “Payin’ for It Now” shifts into a synth sequence that ping-pongs in stereo. Set against unadorned piano, it makes for a dynamic contrast that works with the hard-worn blues tale, told through Walther’s rangy vocals. “I’m Going Out of Your Mind,” besides a clever title and main lyric, features the grooviest, most danceable bass line of the collection, a funky rhodes piano solo, courtesy of Adkins, and a great chorus progression.
“Bad Girl” and “Casualty,” while not standouts, are solid tracks that are similar in their straightforward blues approach, excellent vocals and worthy instrumental interludes. “Meet in The Middle,” an upbeat duet, gets some credit for being tonally different than other songs on the album, but unfortunately falls flat. The band’s cover of “Hold On, I’m Comin’” follows, and succeeds as the other risky attempt of the set. Carried by a deep organ hum, a fiery harmonica solo and Briggs’s uniquely sparse drumming, it has just enough variation from the original without being overdone. The country-gospel inspired “Bailey’s Light,” focuses on great vocal arrangements and finishes on a high note.
On first listening, The Westerner might appear no better or worse than any other of the many, quality Texas-rock attempts. However, a closer look reveals an album that jumps from traditional blues to country-rock, includes some soul, gospel, and isn’t afraid to try some new, unique instrumental pairings. Zack Walther Band shows ambition and creativity in their songs, and with the exception of one tune, delivers on them all. It’s a set that is serious at times, fun at others, and a great listen overall.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– What Kind of Man
– Payin’ for It Now
– I’m Going Out of Your Mind
– Bailey’s Light
The Big Hit
– Payin’ for It Now
Review by Willie Witten