When discussing great albums, one can pretty much boil everything down into two categories. There are those you can listen to anywhere, anytime and they never lose their luster (for me this would be anything by Thrice, the new Owel album, and even a darkhorse album like the début from Panic! At the Disco) and then there are those that truly embody a mood and can only be maximally enjoyed when one is in that mood / wants to be put in that mood (Radiohead’s Kid A, The Animal Years by Josh Ritter, and anything Sigur Ros). Both categories have places in my collection but I must admit that those slow burning, mood setting albums hold a special place in my heart. It is a powerful thing when music can take you out of your current mindset and completely transport you to another time or place; Wes Kirkpatrick’s self-titled album does just that.
Of course, after name-dropping Kid A and Sigur Ros, I may have been a bit misleading about Kirkpatrick’s palette of sound. Truth be told, his sound has more in common with Josh Ritter and other singer/songwriters than the aforementioned avant-garde bands. What I was attempting to get across was simply the idea of moodiness. Many of the songs showcased here would be perfect for a movie or even (GASP!) a commercial. They just manage to capture emotion in their tones exceptionally well, and for an album that is built around an acoustic guitar, it carries a heaviness with it that is rather endearing.
Album opener ‘Bridges’ is an excellent example of this. It starts off with the warm sound of an acoustic guitar played over a cajon and simple hand percussion (see: clapping). Wes’ vocals are perfect for this sound, as they are silky smooth without coming off as transparent or forced. I am terrible at figuring out what songs are “really” about, but there is a decided heaviness in the air as he sings, “I’m on a mission to burn some bridges. Another drink and I’ll burn ’em down.” It’s followed up by ‘Too Late,’ which piles on the sadness even more (I swear it’s not an emo album), this time riding in on some beautiful piano lines and a cherry-on-top of an outro.
Kirkpatrick picks it up a bit on ‘There Are Days,’ with a more upbeat guitar riff and a banjo to boot. Which brings me to one of the great things about this album: the songs are all well crafted, yes, but the greatness lies in the details and in the backing instruments that add color to Wes and his guitar. The banjo on ‘There Are Days’ adds just enough sunshine to pull you out of the darker tones of the first two songs. Similarly, ‘I Should Feel’ features a fantastic Rhodes line throughout the entire song that lays just below the surface, so as not to overpower the song. There are also shakers that add a subtle touch of ambiance to the track, as well as one of those wooden frog percussion instruments. Brilliantly and tastefully done, Sir.
One of the most mesmerizing tracks on the album is ‘Gone,’ which features Wes singing over the smooth tones of the Rhodes and the soft patter of the cajon, while the acoustic guitar is moved to the backseat in order to let the keys work their magic. The combination of Rhodes, piano, and light percussion makes for an astonishingly beautiful combination that I have literally found myself listening to four or fives times in a row.
Album closer ‘Escape’ does a superb job of ending the album on a high note, as it is easily the most rockin’ song found here. A dirty acoustic riff (a la Johnny Cash) plays over an organ in what sounds like a quasi-ode to bluesy southern-rock. It is a perfect end to an emotionally varied and deep album.
Despite my high praise, I do have one complaint, and its name is ‘Gamblin’ Man.’ Why, Wes? Just…why? The jaunty riffing and “fun” storytelling stick out like a sore thumb on an otherwise flawless album. It sounds like nothing else on the album, refusing to fit in lyrically or musically, and rather than coming off as eccentric, it comes off as distracting. The album works very hard to produce a clear flow of emotion, and then ‘Gamblin’ Man’ rushes in and ruins the mood, like an awkward roommate on date night.
Outside of ‘Gamblin Man,’ Wes Kirkpatrick has delivered a top notch album that deserves to be listened to by the masses. It’s moody, it’s dense, and it’s powerful, but it’s smooth as hell. Kirkpatrick’s songwriting is clearly the foundation, but the backing band has added a fair amount of polish and flair that has pushed this album from good to great. If you haven’t hopped on the Wes train yet, you should do so immediately.
GRADE: You probably have no idea who he is, but you should.