Monday, January 26, 2009

Ben Nichols

Ben Nichols
The Last Pale Light in the West
find the album here

Part Springsteen, part Steve Earle, part punk-rock country troubadour, Ben Nichols has always represented something that lies deep within all of us, whether it be heartbreak, angst, or reminiscence, and puts it to music and lyrics in a way that makes you say, "hell yes, I have been there." With Lucero, his whiskey soaked tales of love, loss, and everything in between have become a staple in the musical favorites category of an eclectic group of music enthusiasts, mixing rowdy rock and roll with heart-wrenching elements of country music, giving them a kick in the teeth and a light for their Marlboro Red. Nichols' writing comes from first-hand experiences and that is one of the biggest factors in the success of his song writing. These songs are extremely believable and after hearing his delivery on record and at live shows, you feel as though you have indeed lived them yourself. Every Lucero record is unique in its own right, yet still maintains the overall synergy of the band itself. Though their new record is slated for later in the year, those of us who have come to love this Memphis band were thrilled to find out that Ben Nichols' solo release, The Last Pale Light in the West, is some of the first great music that 2009 is going to offer.

Ben took a different direction with this eight song album, putting aside his personal narratives and basing the entire record on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a.k.a. Evening Redness in the West, one of the most violent and controversial novels in all of literature. With his voice gruff and borderline gravely, Nichols is the perfect narrator of this dark tale from one of the most famous Southern Gothic novelists of all time. For this mini-album, Ben strips things down to the bare bones, with the majority of the work being from his acoustic guitar and vocals. For depth and color, he employees Rick Steff (Cat Power, live touring Lucero member) on accordion and piano and Todd Beene (Glossary) on peal steel and electric guitar. This musical sparsity creates the ideal pallet on which the story is told, each track illuminating a different character from the novel and the personal story that they have to tell. The struggle between good and evil, as it is in the novel, is one of the main aspects to this release, both in the tone and subject matter of the songs. The opening and title track of the album begins with a stuttered acoustic guitar line and whole-note piano chords as the pedal steel literally weeps. Beginning with this was the right move, as it is some of Nichols best lyrical work to date. With passages like, "And I ask for no redemption, in this cold and barren place; still I see a faint reflection, and so by it, guide my way," he strips things down to the meat and potatoes of the situations at hand, accurately describing what he desires with little to no fluff. The seven songs following each focus on an important character to the novel itself, with lyrics and tones that exemplify their corresponding personalities and storyline. "The Kid" tells of the main character, who was born in Tennessee in the mid-19th century and seeks more in life, as he travels west and joins a group of bloodthirsty mercenaries who are devoted to a life of slaughtering Indians, Mexicans, and everyone else in their path. The music of this track features a heavy emphasis on the accordion and piano, giving the song a sea-faring feel, which symbolizes the travel and adventure surrounding the life of the protagonist. For me, "Chambers" is probably the most Lucero sounding song on the record, with similar structures to some of my favorites including "The War" and "She Wakes when She Dreams." The closing track to the album, "The Judge" is an instrumental piece depicting the antagonist of the novel and arguably one of the most evil characters in all of literature. This track is extremely dynamic, tense, and ominous, with drones, swells, and chordal contrast that give an auditory life to this character who embodies everything that is vile and malevolent.
Though only eight songs long, The Last Pale Light in the West, is a masterpiece and the perfect representation of the literary greatness of one of Knoxville's most famous transplanted-sons. Ben Nichols really makes this Western-of-sorts come alive with his music and song writing, creating a great listen for those who are Lucero fans, and fans of rock and country music in general. If this is any indication of what we have in store from the new Lucero release, I am sure that we are in for one hell of a record. But make no mistake of it, The Last Pale Light in the West holds its own among those full band releases and is a great solo effort from one of the best song-writers in the business. -AB

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