Last updated on January 18, 2016
Stephen Lee‘s West of Twenty-Three is a brash, enthusiastic country record: Lee’s whiskey-soaked voice runs ragged over grounded strum, noisy drums, and the occasional melody-contributing violin. It’s refreshing to hear big, bold, unapologetic tunes that aren’t a million-miles-an-hour.
Some might call this folk-punk or some variant of folk–and the speeds occasionally get there for folk-punk–but at its heart this is a country record, interested in the daily lives of people doing what they do: “Blood Brothers” is about kids who took the titular oath, “Jet Lag Blues” follows a traveling salesman, and “Gossip” is about, well, gossip about town. (“Bukowski” even invokes the bard of the common man, positing that he’d be jealous of the narrator’s life.) Lee’s delivery of the lyrics ranges from wry and self-aware (“Cans & Beers”) to even-handed (“Bukowski”) to raging (“One More”), showing his vocal diversity right along with his songwriting diversity.
There are a lot of different looks here, musically. The brash aforementioned tunes are counterpointed by the subdued “Again and Again,” which includes pensive banjo plucks and a wistful vibe, and solo closer “New Wyman Park Restaurant,” which is a pure singer/songwriter tune. Lee’s diversity keeps the album fresh, making West of Twenty-three a blast of fun that’s able to keep your attention even if you’re not in an adrenaline-fueled mood.