West Side Stories is The Westies’ recently released first full album. This folk-rock band is led by gruff and angsty Michael McDermott, who has had a tumultuous ride in both career and personal life. Early troubles bounced McDermott between various bands and lead to a relatively long solo career through the ‘90s that ended shortly after avoiding a three- to six-year prison sentence.
According to the band’s website, this coincided with McDermott’s first time meeting Heather Horton, his now-wife and co-founder of The Westies. McDermott’s choppy past fills West Side Stories with rough, melancholy crooning influenced by classic rock ‘n’ roll artists such as Bruce Springsteen.
The album opens with “Hell’s Kitchen,” a tenderly rolling tune accompanied by murmuring vocals that speak of both personal and economic big city struggles. “Trains,” a revision of McDermott’s solo endeavor, “Dreams About Trains,” follows. This track thrives rhythmically and features lyrics exploring the different directions life can lead to, alternating between songs about painful ghosts and hopeful futures. “Say It,” a kind of sad, pseudo-ballad duet is the album’s musical highlight — the addition of Horton’s voice shines and adds an extremely necessary dimension to the band’s music.
After “Say It…,” the album hits its first rough patch. “Death” places a samba feel over the usual gruff voice, minor progressions and depressing intonations found in previous tracks. The song fails to sound like anything more than a deathly-ill man droning on over some maracas. The track just doesn’t work. Though “Devil” and “Bars” add a limited amount of agreeable sounding music to the album, the repetition of depressing, unoriginal and angsty lyrics take away from the band’s musical ability.
But they make up for this a bit with “Bars,” which allows the group to explore tender guitar melodies. The rest of the album generally declines into lyrics on overused topics such as lost romance and ambiguous sadness, accompanied by equally repetitive, formless melodies.
West Side Stories is both a triumph and a defeat. Some tracks shine in a composite of Springsteen-esque rock, sultry country and Irish-alternative influences, yet others fall to unoriginal lyrics, bland and unclear vocals, and melodies lacking form or innovation. Though the album is a step in the right direction in the sense that it successfully tells the all-too-common, strife-filled story of falling through the cracks of life, The Westies have quite a bit of work to do. There is no doubt that this musical hiccup will be overcome, just as the hard times The Westies sing about have been triumphed over in the past.