On Six on the Out, the new album from The Westies, singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael McDermott forges distinctive paths through the well-trodden terrains of Celtic-flavored roots-rock à la The Waterboys and smooth Americana à la Daryl Scott. The opener, “If I Had a Gun,” wraps a whole raft of precedents into a new concoction, even echoing the hard-driving passion of classic Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan’s edgy, scratchy folk. Its dark ballad flavor makes it the kind of song Johnny Cash might have chosen during his late great American Recordings period.
“Pauper’s Sky” switches to a major key and layers a similar melody over a humming New Wave beat that gives the song a timeless feel.
One of the best tracks, “Parolee,” draws a vivid portrait of a man sunk in regret, without a place to feel at home. “Don’t you wish you could start all over again?” asks this wistful drifter.
Many of McDermott’s characters are in similar dilemmas. Even when they drum up a raucous energy, there’s an air of desperation about them. With a penny whistle supplying a bright Celtic flavor, the philosophical “The Gang’s All Here” reveals his facility with words.
We sure are scattered, unmasked and shattered
Battered in this endless search
It’s not the trouble, it’s surviving the struggle
That gives our lives meaning and worth
Continuing to shuffle things around, McDermott gives “Like You Used To” to violinist Heather Horton to sing in an appealing slurred style. This pretty tune drifts by like an echo of an early ’60s girl-group hit. But the band shifts back into high gear for “Everything is All I Want for You,” a rare foray into optimism.
“Once Upon a Time” reveals McDermott’s broad spectrum of vocal energy, a near-whisper in the verses rocketing to heights of passion in the bridge. “They took away my freedom / Filled me with rage / Got all the resentment, fear and anger / Of a man half my age.”
Sweetly and atmospherically produced, Six on the Out is elevated by Will Kimbrough’s always fluidly musical electric guitar, and broadened by mandolin, bouzouki, and violin, all supported by McDermott’s tasteful acoustic guitar work. It ends with one of the most depressing stories-in-song I’ve heard in a long while. Throughout the album, hard-luck tales of criminals and lost souls drive the lyrics and give the music its wistful flavor. But an acute songwriting sensibility, rich, salty musicianship, and mournful vocals combine magically into an uplifting spirit. That’s the magic of good music.