Imagine a gun-slinging Eddie Vedder drinking whiskey with Mumford & Sons and you come close to summoning up the style of Jake Smith, also known as The White Buffalo.
With his long tangly hair, coarse beard, and acoustic guitar, Smith is creating an image of a busted southern soul on his new album, Once Upon a Time in the West. The 13 songs about BB guns, drinking, and dying complete the image, and when his gravelly voice flows through your ears with an unexpected poetic tenderness, you’re hauled by your bootstraps into the stirrup.
Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t exactly a concept album, but it is one rooted structurally and stylistically in old-school country and western. And by old-school, I mean the days of saloons, duels, and the wild frontiers. Take the opening lines of “Good Ol’ Day to Die,” set to a cool bass line: “Back in the eighteenth century / When the west was as wild as the eye could see / Pack up the wife and the wagon, get some land for free / An endless trail to liberty.”
Were it not for Smith’s convincing storytelling and absorbtion in his music, the whole thing might be a bit gimmicky. What’s more, he’s not just belting out rough and tumbling songs over boisterous steel guitars and banjos – though he does at times, especially on the bawling “How the West Was Won”. He’s also able to draw down to a delicate whisper, like on “Sleepy Little Town” or, better yet, “Ballad of a Dead Man”, a laid back number about senseless death and those left behind – a sombre reminder of the darker underside of Smith’s lyrics.
Many of the songs on the album do take on weighty topics, and even the western groove can’t disguise the fact that they’re universal issues of mortality, redemption, and purpose, all tinged with a nostalgic atmosphere – tender, but not overbearingly serious. The acute employment of old west images and musical styling is thus not only a singer-songwriter trick, but a metaphorical link to a nearly forgotten past in all senses of the word.
Once Upon a Time in the West is part of the Americana folk resurgence that’s been creeping across air waves for the last few years. The album’s production doesn’t play any unexpected trump cards but does its job as The White Buffalo undoubtedly intends: to sound like a night at a sweat-soaked pub with intermittent moments of release and reflection to acoustic instruments.
Somewhere there too, between forgetting yourself and romanticizing riding off into the sunset, the record pulls you back into the present: “With my brother and my memory I bring my history home.” That’s the way things go, once upon a time.