It’s quite fitting that the first song on the first album I review this year is about new beginnings. Maybe even for me too, as I don’t usually listen to much country or folk music. I blame it on my early associations with the South and the southern part of my family’s sometimes narrow state of mind. It left lasting impression on me, especially in my formative years. And the memory of being in the same room hearing my dad’s country tapes one too many times as a kid still makes me cringe. There have been examples over the years that have broke through this bias for me though. The Civil Wars completely caught me offguard. Hearing Emmylou Harris on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning gave me an all new appreciation for intelligent southern music. I’ve realized just how much of a rebel and genius the late Johnny Cash was. And Jeff Rockcub, the first country performer to make me like a song from Grease, and to pull out a Public Enemy verse mid-song on stage, has helped open my eyes a bit too. Oh look! He’s on here! I’ve also been lucky enough to catch Michael West live, during one of the many Bearpalooza shows he has performed, and I was impressed.
The songs on A Fond Farewell are *not* honky tonk drunk in a pickup truck on a Saturday night songs. They are right from the heart. And they veer from the “alt-country” side of country to southern rock to traditional storyteller folk to a little bit of hip-hop and… um… autotune? Yes. Autotune. And it works. With a little help from his friends. One glance at the album credits and I notice many names of alumni from Bearpalooza, a rotating group of musicians from the gay bear community that have toured and played shows together for many years. From this have come many artists that I have come to love, including Tommy Johns, Jeff Rockcub, Freddy and Jay Freeman, Kendall Kelly, Toshio Mana and Don Harvey. All of these guys I have seen perform and was blown away by their talents. Not to shortchange any of the other great musicians on this album. Those are just the ones I’m familiar with so far.
To lead things off, “A Fond Farewell” is a forward to the future uplifting song about overcoming the path behind you and cruising on into the future, embracing all it holds. This one is more of a southern rock song. Michael has the right amount of gruff southern vocals without having the type of twang that usually turns me away. “I’m making peace with my soul tonight”. I like that. There’s a lot of story in this song. Great stuff!
“Shine” is a cozy acoustic-based song. Another spirit lifting track here that is pretty simple in its message. Some days you just need a song like this to put you back in a good mood.
Next is the curve ball. “Something In the Water” is a song about heeding the warnings and signs of all the problems facing the human race. This one has a broken up guitar line that reminds me slightly of “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths, a rock beat, and deep southern vocals.. but electro style and autotuned to dark effect, and a menacing sounding spoken bridge. Kudos for taking a left turn here.
“What If” follows, with drums that sound like the marching drums of war, and a spacey psychedelic guitar line. The lyrics take the idea of John Lennon’s “Imagine” one step further, leaving us to realize that all the “what if”s in the song could be true if we really want them to be. Then Kendall Kelly comes in with a rap verse, and in the big pot of beef stew that is this album, it works perfectly.
“Since You’ve Been Gone” starts out sounding like an old time record with a great slow juke joint piano section and gives way to a soulful country-tinged blues song. This is definitely one of my favorite performances on the album. I can almost picture Michael singing this at a piano in a bar in an old movie. It sounds like one of those classic 60s soul records you would hear somewhere and wonder why you never heard it before.
“Until You Do Right By Me” is where the album goes full-on rollicking country. Not usually my style, but it’s natural, and the lyrics are quite good, so this gets to be an exception for me. Especially when the song that follows, “You Rock Me” is so different. Here Michael sings in a soulful higher register and gets a bit nasty singing “Crash into me like you mean it!” over a riff that reminds me a bit of BTO, and a funky drum beat. “Nothing Remains” follows, a gentle acoustic country ballad with some excellent detail in the guitar parts. It is listed as featuring Namoli Brennet, so I must assume that is the guitarist here. Mental note… must go find out more about Namoli Brennet.
Next is what seems to be the oldest track in the bunch, “My Love Will Reach You”, an upbeat wind-in-your-hair complete redo of a ballad from his first album A Long Stretch of Highway. It’s easy to notice that song overall is older in comparison though, being in a different register and slightly different style than the other songs. But it is an interesting idea doing a more up to date version that fits the album better and to see how Michael has grown as an artist.
The last section of the album contains some of the best songs. “Singing The Sun Up” is a folked-up, funked-up happy little jam about keeping your spirits and maybe the neighbors up. “Today I Started Loving You Again” is slow saloon country, but just so much fun and so genuine for a song about having the blues. Then on “Who Needs Love” West serves up some southern soul, with some great piano and organ to add flavor, and to top it off The Shine Virtual Choir to take this song to church.
My favorite song is near the end, called “Zephyr’s Song”. It’s about becoming fathers, along with his partner DJ, to their son Zephyr. So sweet. The end is from “It’s Not Easy” from the movie Pete’s Dragon (which I admit I have not seen… adding it to the list now). Both DJ and Zephyr appear on the end of the song. It left me just a little bit teary-eyed.
The final track “When I Reach The Place I’m Going” is a gentle uplifting duet with the extremely talented Jonell Mosser. The mandolin-laced track reminds me a bit of some of Led Zeppelin’s quieter moments. Gorgeous way to end the album. Like a musical family portrait.
I have to say for an album that is based mostly in a genre I rarely listen to to get repeat listens from me is quite an accomplishment. There’s a lot of variety to A Fond Farewell, but most importantly a lot of heart.
Videos from the album to check out:
“When I Reach The Place I’m Going”:
“A Fond Farewell”: