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True West - Hollywood Holiday Revisited

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Artist: True West

Album: Hollywood Holiday Revisited

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Jul. 5, 2007

This very fine reissue collects the first two albums, along with three demos produced by Television's Tom Verlaine, from True West, one of the great lost bands of the mid-'80s. Formed on the fringes of the Paisley Underground scene in the early '80s, the band originated out of a UC Davis-centered scene alongside bands like Thin White Rope and Game Theory. Lead guitarist Russ Tolman had played in Suspects with Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith, pre-Dream Syndicate, and then a band called Meantime, which evolved, with the addition of singer Gavin Blair and second guitarist Richard McGrath, into True West.

The band's first single, included on this disc, was a cover of "Lucifer Sam"; the b-side was the same song played backward and titled, "Mas Reficul" (this is, unfortunately, not on the reissue). It nicely summed up the band's signature sound, full of howling echo, dual droning guitars and a sense of expansive, desert space.

The True West EP followed in 1983, further defining a wonderfully dark and noirish aesthetic. "Steps to that Door" is full of noise and drone, its double guitars bending in '60s sitar shapes, Blair's voice echoing over it all. The more linear "Hollywood Holiday" is all film noir jangle, its REM-ish guitars tangled around a grimly sexual storyline ("She says she hasn't done this much at all / He leans his back up against the wall / She crawls slowly to her knees / Isn't life a mystery?") . It is relentlessly dark and ominous before guitars spiral out of the murk mid-song in a joyful solo reminiscent of Television.

While many of the songs here -- the title track, "Steps to the Door," and "Lucifer Sam" -- had been released before Hollywood Holiday came together, the LP marked the debut of career-highlight "And Then the Rain." This song, included twice on this reissue, is arguably the best thing the band ever did, full of the jangle of mid-'80s college rock, but tempered with an echoing expansive drama. The interplay of guitars, one spinning tangles of Byrdish harmonized chords, the other picking out icy-clear harmonics, is particularly striking on this cut, and Blair's singing has never sounded as huge and doomed and romantic.

After Hollywood Holiday, True West retreated to an upstate New York studio to record demos with Television's Tom Verlaine. This was clearly the band's best shot at mainstream success; a deal with EMI was on the table. Yet, according to Tolman, the sessions didn't go as well as he had hoped. "Drummer Joe in his excitement to be working in a big studio with Verlaine had difficulties keeping his tempo under control, and by the time we got usable basic tracks, we were left with very little time for vocals, overdubs and mixing," he remembers, in the liner notes. The deal with EMI never materialized, and the tracks remained unreleased. Three of them are here, alternate versions of "Throw Away the Key" and "Look Around," as well as a new one called "Morning Light," and they do not seem to have the same urgency and energy as the earlier material. (These three songs were previously released in 1989 on the post-break-up EP Best Western.)

In 1984, True West recorded Drifters. Although less raw and folkier than their first LP, Drifters offers some very fine material. The definitive version of "Look Around," with its pounding drums and U2'd call and response is here, as is the rootsy, dreamy "Speakeasy." "What About You" is one of the most beautiful songs on the disc, its vocals buried slightly in the mix so that the guitar's shimmery, sensual tone comes to the forefront.

Hollywood Holiday Revisited stops with Drifters, by all accounts a good place to end the True West story. There was one more album, Hand of Fate, recorded without Tolman (he left the band just after Drifters), but by most accounts it was a disappointment. The band broke up in 1987, with Gavin Blair and Richard McGrath forming Fool Killers and Tolman recording a number of solo albums.

The packaging for the reissue is quite good, with long, informative essays by both Russ Tolman and Jud Cost, and archival photos of the band. The music is good enough to require no context, however. It echoes lots of the big bands of the late '70s and '80s -- the country-punk jangle of REM, the twining dual guitars of Television, the arena ambitions of U2 -- and yet it sounds entirely different from any of these bands. If you missed True West the first time around -- and it sounds like lots of people did -- this is an exceptionally good introduction.

By Jennifer Kelly

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