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Music Review: Ben Nichols – The Last Pale Light in the West

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The sparse, dark, and aggressive alt-country, bluegrass, and southern rock ballads of The Last Pale Light in the West are guttural poems set to knee slapping fireside guitar riffs. The 7-song CD is a short, but impressive, solo debut for Lucero lead singer Ben Nichols. It is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 classic Nebraska. A stark recording, the only instruments on The Last Pale Light in the West are guitars, an accordion, a piano, and Nichol’s gruff, engaging voice.

The recording is a soft piece with grim themes. The guitars lead everything, while the pianos and accordions haunt the stories Nichols tells. All the songs are written by Nichols and based on the 1985 Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian: or the Evening Redness in the West. McCarthy’s Meridian is considered by many to be a modern America classic of literature, a gritty western novel about a teenage runaway “the kid,” who joins a gang of scalp hunters who massacre Indians on the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1800s. The story is based on actual events and has been praised for it’s nightmarish beauty and magnificent language. As Nichols translates the novel into brief songs he displays his gift for crafting a story and delivering intricate emotions and settings through brief phrases.

Only one song on The Last Pale Light in the West is longer than five minutes, and the closing song is an instrumental tune. Nichols begins the album with the title song, which sets the theme for the album, telling the story of a remorseless character who is bound to go west. The second song is “The Kid” – a rolling biography of The Kid – a tune that tells of a forgotten child who meets up with the devil.

The lyrics throughout the album work in many of the characters and places from Blood Meridian, and Nichols powerfully sorrowful voice shines through crisply — thanks to engineering by Doug Easley — overtop the soft, or possibly barren and dead with a harsh blood-tinged wind blowing, musical landscape that Nichols and his two partners (Rick Steff on accordian and piano, and Todd Beene on guitar) produce.

Nichols’ minimal lyrics illustrate the bleak musical layout: “Don’t believe in Hell / But he figures somehow / Even if it’s real / It’s gonna spit him back out”; “I done some preachin’ back in Texas before the war / Now I hunt heathens ‘cause it pays better than the Lord / I ride with Demons / The Devil at my side / Be it us or the heathens, we must all pay a heavy price”; “They took my ears in Omaha / Thought me dead but I weren’t at all / Left them bleeding in the mud / Branded me for horse thievery / Between my eyes for all to see / Left them bleeding in the mud / When this world was made / Was never meant to save / Everyone in kind / And I don’t believe / God much had me / Had me much in mind”. His phrasing delivers coldness and despair with pinpoint accuracy.

The Last Pale Light in the West is a gorgeous black and white photo of a homeless man on a cold New York street. Neon lights are around the corner, but the dark alley is the only way to get there, and there is no guarantee that the neon lights will save anybody. Going down the alley is a scary prospect, but there may be no way to stop your momentum, so you sharpen your teeth and challenge the shadows to a duel.

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