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A Small Good Thing - Slim Westerns Vol. II

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Artist: A Small Good Thing

Album: Slim Westerns Vol. II

Label: Leaf

Review date: Sep. 16, 2002

Spaghetti Western

Listening to A Small Good Thing’s new record Slim Westerns Vol. II, one begins to remember the inherent differences between country and western music. Often conveniently thrown together, the title "country-western" music is as vague as it is incorrect. With extra large font, it is advertised in the tourist brochures for the Gran' Ol' Opry's latest packaged, sequined superstar from Nashville; or, it spouts out the mouth of some naïve hipster who earnestly claims to "be into the whole Country Western scene" (or alt-country, or whatever), then upon looking at his CD collection, one only finds Ryan Adams and Uncle Tupelo. The point is many people throw the title "western" in haphazardly to describe a genre that's primarily based near the Eastern Seaboard. Tennesse is not the West, it's the South and the majority of stereotypical country music comes from South of the Mason-Dixon line.

The south is crowded and its music reflects that. Crowded with people, trailer parks, highways lined with strip malls - all captured within the angst and alcohol-ridden narratives of many a country song. Country music is inspired by the actions of those who inhabit this area or state of mind. It is music for people, about people and inspired by people.

The American West, however, is a different story. Largely barren and inhabited (despite Nevada having the largest increase of population in the country this past decade), much of the West still resembles the quintessential cowboy backdrop. Much remains as one would imagine the first Calvary men exploring it. From the majestic Monument Valley to the skeletal remains of many mining towns, a nostalgia that's not easy to pin down is easily obtainable for those who seek it. No one alive has experienced it, but we're all familiar thanks to the stories, myths and legends that circulate growing up in America. From the massacre of countless tribes to recent explosion of planned communities, the evolution of the West hasn't stopped us from romanticizing it within our collective consciousness.

A Small Good Thing's Slim Westerns Vol. II openly banks on this nostalgia. A soundtrack without a film, the album is pieced together by memories of once visited vistas and most importantly, hazy memories of the Sunday afternoon cowboy television shows of one's childhood. The instrumentals are sparse and meticulously orchestrated, asking the listener to imagine a narrative rather being walked through it.

At its best, Slim Westerns resembles the majority of Ry Cooder's film scores, Paris, Texas ( probably the greatest modern western) in particular. Yet the majority searches for more retro roots; the low groans of a well placed violin, slide guitar or solo piano conjures up memories of watching the man with no name slide into some dusty town, kill the baddies, ignore the girl and ride into the sunset. I like Slim Westerns Vol. II, but it is far from genuine. Many of the tracks are overly-stylized – ultimately too showy for the Searchers, 3:10 to Yuma or, hell, even Lonesome Dove. Instead it relies more on Morricone, Cooder or Badalmenti, imitating these composers to achieve its means. Its quiet deliberate pretension, from the near silent opening minutes of "Cropduster" to the cheesy faux-fiesta trumpet of "A Mighty Stillness", Slim Westerns Vol. II constantly teeter-totters between a humble attempt at authenticity and an all out assault of clichés of what outsiders imagine encapsulates the Amercian West. The album's standout, "El Mariachi Loco" finds a happy medium until the last 30 seconds where it breaks into stereotypical Mexican loco celebration that would even make the Taco Bell Chihuahua cover his head in shame.

The album succeeds because of its dreamy ambience; nothing realistic, but still entirely recognizable. The album has more influences than parts in a New Mexican garage, and though film soundtracks are usually consistent in their moods, here A Small Good Thing throw anything the least bit “Western” into the mix. It also is admirable to a certain extent, in the fact that the band never falls back into stereotypical "country" themes - impressive for a bunch of relative outsiders hailing from the U.K.

Slim Westerns Vol. II, pails in comparison to the films and composers that inspired it. Yet, the album serves its purpose: briefly evoking distant memories and visions of the American West. Picture this as a Prefuse 73 of American West Nostalgia that wants you to count its parts rather than recognize its sum. It's both too aware of itself to be a companion to Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry and too scattered brained to be comparable to Ry Cooder or Ennio Morricone. For better or worse, it acts as a Cliff Notes for every mood captured in recent art about the American West. Slim Westerns Vol. II is recommendable, but then again, so is reading the book.

By Addison MacDonald

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