Eric Westbury,
Burnt Tongues
& Blue Truths

(Barreltown, 2003)

I hate giving negative reviews. Especially for an album that sounds as good as Eric Westbury's Burnt Tongues & Blue Truths.

Musically and vocally, this is album is a fine listen. Westbury's guitar work is always spirited and sometimes inspired. His voice is rough and raspy and beautiful, able to deliver slow songs or raucous rock with the same conviction. The overall sound is respectable alt-folk/country, nothing groundbreaking but good to hear.

The problems kicked in when I started to listen to the words.

Westbury's fine voice delivers his lyrics with surprising clarity, but the words can be overridden by the music on a casual hearing. But a little focus makes the lyrics ring clear, and the lyrics are a solid disappointment.

The opening and title track, "Burnt Tongues & Blue Truths," should serve as a warning. An anonymous narrator laments the misleading of some people, possibly all people, by corrupt authority. Any authority. Three minutes of resigned vocals offer nothing but lamentations and resignation. Still, "Burnt Tongues" would be an acceptable, if not inspiring, bit of social criticism on its own. But the theme is brought up again in the very next song, the musically eerie "Hooves & Horns." It comes through loud and clear again in "One Million Shovels," and goes through a minor reprise for the finale, "Knockin' the Big Man Down." Over and over appear the same lines of vague social condemnation, laid out with no clear target and no chance of change. He pins human troubles on the devil, decries truth as buried where "only very few" can find it, and swears vengeance against an unnamed "Big Man" for unseen crimes by people with no plan, weapons or evident reason.

His attempts to examine life on a smaller level fare no better. Some of the press surrounding Westbury attempts to put him on the levels of Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie for his songs of ordinary life. But those storytellers had an immediate and vital connection with the careworn half heroes of their tales. Westbury seems to be peering at them down his nose through a long telescope. The common residents and things of the world enter his world at risk of contempt. A friendly bar patron runs afoul of the condescending storyteller in "Walking Tracks." Able and open enough to offer the singer a beer, chatting about his favorite hockey team, wistful over his daughter's distance but still keeping in touch, he seems to occupy the sort of old age that many would envy. But the singer rejects his offer for company, and in the chorus shudders away from his example, saying "I hope I don't leave walking tracks like that." It's a baffling song, but at least not as pathetically toothless as "Wise Man Watching." "Wise Man" tries to lend serious drama to the agonies of a man disgruntled by the "stuff" he sees on satellite TV, bemoaning his new informed state and wishing to find the remote. The fact that Weird Al Yankovic made a song on the same subject years ago should be a clue to all earnest singer-songwriters that any conflict that can be ended with the punch of a power button is not a serious lyrical theme.

In spots a truer speech makes itself heard. "Tanks" takes the moral ambiguity of the entire album and turns it into the frightening shadow play of a weak man corrupted by the horrors of life in war. Another standout song, "Churchill's Black Dog," is a powerful bit of poetry, a heavy piece with a darkly cheerful tune. Telling the story of a roaming ravenous dog that never seems to find its fill, Westbury at last puts his love of metaphor to good use, turning the black dog into a nightmarish devouring force far beyond the bounds of everyday things being used to describe it. Poetic and powerful, "Churchill's Black Dog" shows that Westbury has at least the potential to become the folk poet he wants to be.

Unfortunately, the song that most sums up the album is the self-satisfied "Next Showing of the Big Picture." Buried in a litany of rhetorical questions better suited to a children's jump rope chant ("how many steps make a walk? ... when will the clouds disappear?"), the ever-purposeless narrator insists that when he goes, he'll get to be in the front row for the next showing of the big picture. It's the perfect symbol of how this album approaches life, and all the messy emotion that goes with it; as a show to be waited on, watched and possibly critiqued, something happening on a distant screen with no involvement from the audience. It's a life lived in the passive voice, without the passion to touch another heart or the heat to burn the tenderest mouth.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 11 December 2004

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