Need a vacation? The Educated Guess can give you one. Their latest project, West Skyline Drive, not only sounds western, but is so compelling that it can actually take you there. It takes the romantic, nearly mythological ideas of the West and adds the unique blend of rock and roll with an orchestra. The result is a rich, wholly-realized, symphonic sound. And if I sound like I’m raving, well, I am. I tried to write this review while listening to West Skyline Drive (for the umpteenth time), but found that with it playing, I was perfectly content to stare at the blank page and just listen. It’s distractingly, engrossingly good.
The first movement begins (and beckons) with “1862 Overture,” a seamless blend of reoccurring motifs. Interweaving solos from the strings and brass are nothing short of gorgeous, while the twangy guitar sound and complicated, ever-changing drumming give it a modern twist. Songwriter/composer Charlie Brumley (who’s also the lead vocalist and pianist) is obviously talented, right from the beginning. The overture glides right into “Bullets,” which includes a rockin’ syncopation bit sure to toe-tap, and a thumpin’ bass line from Jon Venegoni (He also plays tuba!).
“The Ballad of Enough” contrasts catchy, upbeat music with satirical, yet thoughtful, lyrics about self-pity. It’s also great to sing along to, if you’re into that (guilty). The pedal steel guitar is featured in the next track, “Into Dust.” It gives an organic, liquid feel to the ballad, while also adding to the impressive list of diverse instruments included on the album.
If I had to pick a favorite from West Skyline Drive, it’d be “Hero Complex.” Starting with just guitar (from electric guitarist Jordan Rogers) and vocals, the orchestra and percussion then add punchy exclamations. It builds really well, up until a wonderfully full middle section that’s irresistibly danceable. “Friend from Foe” concludes the first movement with pretty guitar riffs and verses that add something new each time.
The majestic instrumental “Antebellum” sounds the most western on the album – it always make me think I’m on Lonesome Dove Ranch about to, I dunno, do something noble. The melody is explored through all sorts of timbres – a whistler, strings, and even an opera singer. “Antebellum” balances nicely with “Lullaby No. 1 (Sunset),” which lives up to its name, but without making anyone sleepy.
“A Coward’s Last Stand” displays some of Brumley’s best vocals in his low, clear voice. This song seems almost more like a poem, with its poignant images and delicate piano parts. In contrast, “Native Son” takes things back to rock and roll, especially with an energetic guitar solo from Rogers. Drummer Brian Pincus wows with his sheer technical, virtuosic skill. “Ghosts and Empty Cities” makes me think of the Dust Bowl… in a good way. There’s a clever turn of words with “I couldn’t leave behind/what was mine to claim/my destiny/did manifest.” The hopeful, almost anthemic, closer “The Ballad of Return” gives everyone their time to shine, and it concludes with a reappearing musical motif, firmly establishing the cohesiveness of West Skyline Drive.
This album is recommended for anyone who likes depth of songwriting and intstrumental complexity in their music. The Educated Guess will be playing with their Emperor Norton Orchestra around the St. Louis area this summer.