Western Centuries,
Weight of the World
(Free Dirt, 2016)

First ... about that name. Are Western Centuries plural, or is this proper noun intended to be singular? And if the former, is an individual band member to be called a Century? One can conceive that a country group might title an album Weight of the World -- metaphorically speaking, the theme of a lot of sad hillbilly songs -- but why Western Centuries? That could be the title of a Western Civ textbook, but what does it mean in the present instance?

Well, no matter, just wondering. The promo material that accompanied my copy of the CD has Western Centuries as an it, not a they, so I will follow suit. Those notes report that Western Centuries was once Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, though my copy of the latter's disc (which I reviewed, somewhat ambivalently, in this space on 8 November 2014) reveals that only Morrison (acoustic guitar, drums) and Jim Miller (electric guitar) have made the transition to the retitled outfit.

The Seattle-based Centuries is a five-man band, with the songwriting responsibilities dealt in roughly equal proportions to Morrison, Miller and Ethan Lawton (electric and acoustic guitar). In my experience, notably in the folkish/acoustic Band-ish recordings he cut with Eli West, Morrison is an accomplished and distinctive songwriter. One would feel sorry for those competing with him if Miller and Lawton didn't prove themselves fully up to the task. Weight's dozen cuts sail by as if on the smoothest of streams, whoever may have built the boat and piloted it. Each of three has an unusual yet ear-friendly voice, by which word I mean literal and figurative. None, however, seems particularly country. Or, for that matter, particularly not country.

Still, this is something like country music, played with verve by guys who know their way around the genre, and some of the melodies are pure honkytonk shuffles. You could easily dance to them. But the chance that Western Centuries will be aired on mainstream country radio can be counted between nil and nonexistent. As becomes evident early on, nothing formulaic is at work here, immediate appearances aside. The themes are familiar enough: alcohol, romantic disharmony, the road. And there's steel guitar (Rusty Blake) and fiddle (guest Rosie Newton). But the writers are too creative -- and yes, too literate -- to let them go at that. The way they're put together, the lyrics could work easily in assorted musical settings and in the personas of various artists. Gordon Lightfoot in his prime, of whom I am occasionally reminded, is just one of them.

Western Centuries and Weight of the World are slippery, though. You think you know what you're hearing, until you listen more closely and suddenly you find that you're being carried off to some unanticipated destination. You won't complain.

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 June 2016

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