by Seth Tompkins
The Westerlies’ eponymous sophomore album is unified by a clarity of purpose and a distinctive sonic palette. The overall effect of this release is one of harmony and serene simplicity. In fact, this album is so consistently styled and masterfully produced that it could be easy to miss the ingenious subtleties and careful construction that underpin the simple beauty of this release. That would be unfortunate, because to miss the subtleties in these 17 tracks is to miss the potential lasting impact of this album.
It is difficult talk about The Westerlies without mentioning the album’s distinctive sound. Despite differences between tracks, the sound of this album is remarkably consistent from track to track, creating a satisfying unity that runs from beginning to end.
The chief element in this unity of sound is the types of articulations The Westerlies have chosen to use. This is not to say that the articulations are uniform across the album; quite the opposite is true! Within just the first few tracks, the wide variety of articulations varies from mellow to aggressive and from bright and insistent to smooth and nonchalant. However, despite this obvious prowess, the group does manage to create a unified sound through articulation alone. This is mostly accomplished through their heavy reliance on a specific articulation: a somewhat soft, breathy, but very consistent sound that is reminiscent Stan Getz. This particular sound is one that guides the listener through the entire album. While not a sound that may be familiar top all listeners, by the end of the second disc, it seems like an old friend.
Photo Credit: Sasha Arutyunova
The most outstanding specific sonic element on this disc is the way in which the group has handled the bass. Despite the trombone usually being a “bright” instrument, through smart microphone placement and expert execution, The Westerlies have coaxed an incredibly broad array of bass sounds out of the humble trombone. In many sections, the bass sounds as if it being produced by a euphonium, tuba, or even an electronic bass instrument. There are also moments when the bass sound is pure trombone. The staggeringly wide range of bass sounds The Westerlies include on this release is worthy of high praise, especially as it is apparently achieved with little or no digital alteration.
Another notable element of the sound world of this album is the group’s use of extended techniques. The noodling, the screeching, the growling, and related sounds make frequent appearances on this release. However, instead of the intrusive gimmicks these techniques can sometimes be, here they serve only to color and shade the unified sonic world the group has created. In many instances, these unusual sounds blend so well with the main textures of the music that they may pass unnoticed as they sculpt the soundscape. In many spots on this release, these effects take the place of electronic effects; there are many moments when what sounds like a digital alteration is actually being created live via the acoustic instruments of the group through these deftly executed special techniques.
The apparent lack of digital enhancements on this release is one of its chief merits. Through the use of extended techniques, savvy microphone placement, and top-notch engineering, The Westerlies and their producer, Jesse Lewis, have managed to create a collection of sounds that in many other cases would require a great deal of computerized hocus-pocus. And beyond that, they have managed to do it in a way that is not the least bit self-righteous. They are not shoving the fact that they are mostly acoustic in our faces; acoustic is simply the way their music exists.
Photo Credit: Michael George
A secondary aspect of the laudable lack of digital trickery on this release is the freedom the group takes with letting some of the “uglier” sounds of brass playing bleed through. In many spots, edgy sounds come through that some producers might want to keep off their finished products. In other places, the sound of these muscular instruments can be heard bouncing of the wall and ceiling of the recording space. The fact that these peripheral brass sounds made it onto the final album is evidence that this group has done some deep soul-searching on the true nature of brass playing. Much like their choice to stick with a mostly-acoustic sound, The Westerlies’ choice to include some of these realistic sounds onto the album shows that they are not interested in the expectations of anyone else; they are thinking for themselves and forging their own path.
Perhaps one reason The Westerlies chose to build the sonic world of this release with the above elements is that they see their group as primarily a live acoustic ensemble, even in the context of a studio recording. Few, if any, of the tracks on this release would be difficult for the group to recreate in a live setting, and the live performance would likely sound much like the album, including sounds of “the room” and many of realistic sounds of live brass playing that are often omitted in commercial recordings. If this is indeed the case, this is an integrity move and their audience is better for it.
The compositions themselves also warrant praise. Much like the delicious balance between varied and unified articulations and colors throughout the album, the pieces themselves represent a diverse, yet broadly unified element that ties the entire release together. All the compositions on this release save three are by The Westerlies themselves. While there are moments of raucousness and unique diversions that occur frequently among these compositions, the overall effect is similar to that of the soundscape that pervades the album; the pieces have enough in common that they hang together remarkable well. Hopefully, these overarching unities bode well for the future of the ensemble, signaling that the quartet is bonded in a way that will afford them fruitful collaboration for years to come.
Photo Credit: Michael George
Finally, the three compositions not by The Westerlies must be considered. It is a fascinating trio of pieces: one traditional tune (arranged by Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon), a Duke Ellington tune, and a piece by Charles Ives. There might be myriad reasons why the quartet chose these three, but it seems that the most likely plan is this: these tunes give just enough context to convince a skeptical listener to buy into this genre-defying acoustic quartet. Also, one jazz tune, one “modern” piece of classical music, and one traditional hymn-like tune are an excellent representation of the background that most classical-trained brass players have. Whether these tunes are intended to provide context for the new music on the album, or are a nod to the background of the quartet members, or are simply included because the quartet likes them, they are woven with the same delicious technique and careful construction as the rest of the release.
The Westerlies is an album with two layers of existence. It is at once a plainly beautiful release shot through with genius technique and considerate musical planning, and an innovative exploration into what the future of acoustically-driven music could be. The fearless choices The Westerlies have made on this release lead the way for acoustic music in the face of an increasingly computerized musical landscape, while at the same time creating a sublime listening experience that can be enjoyed for its simplicity and peace.