Once Upon A Time In The West, by The White Buffalo
Suggested by Danny Nuttall
This is not my first rodeo with The White Buffalo.
Way back in Album 23, I reviewed Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights. I enjoyed it, in part, and gave out a creditable 6/10. I said the album was one of contrast, exemplified by the title, and that while I enjoyed the Darkest Darks I didn’t particularly gel with the Lightest Lights.
Once Upon A Time In The West was released a full five years before Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights. Will the older album present as a regression of sorts, a raw and raucous stepping-stone on the journey to the more considered and mature later release?
Before we get there, here’s a refresher on The White Buffalo. This act is the alter ego of singer-songwriter-guitarist Jake Smith, a fortysomething beardy bloke with cowboy pretensions. Over nineteen years, he’s released seven full albums and three Eps or alternative country / roots rock / cowpunk with niche appeal but little mainstream penetration. I’m not impuning his skillset in saying this: I like the music, and I like the brand.
Weirdly, Once Upon A Time In The West opens with what I’d call a “Light”, in the vernacular of my previous White Buffalo review. Ballad of a Deadman is a drawling, almost lurching slow rock number that wouldn’t be out of place on any of Bon Jovi’s back catalogue of Brokeback Fanfic. It lacks the glorious swoop of JBJ’s vocal, but showcases a gravelly baritone that brings more gravitas to the campfire. I’m happy that it’s not as maudlin as the Lights I know from Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights, but I still find it an odd choice for an opening salvo.
Happily, the album heads towards Darks territory immediately, with How the West was Won and The Pilot providing some energy and sass. The former is particularly bouncy, with its frank lyric, marching bass, cowboy yodel and almost ironic banjo. After those, we start the slow descent back to Ballad Canyon, with the heartfelt One Lone Night and the intricate yet maudlin Sleepy Little Town. There’s some lovely guitar work on the latter, but at this point I’d rather be stomping my feet than nodding my head.
By now it’s clear the way in which this album will ebb and flow, moving effortlessly between fast and slow, between emotion and almost comedy cowpoke gurning. As before, I’m loving the top-end fire and shrugging at the heartfelt totes emotes warbling. But, while Darkest Darks. Lightest Lights leans heavily into the whip-crack-away snapping switch between the styles, there’s a mellower transition here, with the darks not quite as dark and the lights not quite as light. I like the cohesion, but your mileage may vary. And even though my standout Good Ol’ Day To Die is the Darkest Dark on the album, it’s not a patch on the latter album’s Robbery.
The White Buffalo’s formula has obviously streamlined between releases. Once Upon A Time In The West is moonshine, while Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights has distilled it down to your finest sippin’ whiskey. Both have their merits, and I’m unsure which I like more. I’ll give Once Upon A Time In The West 7/10, to match my revised score for Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights. Both albums excel, with one a touch more polarised than the other.