In the final cut on the second album from Jake Smith, A.K.A. White Buffalo, the songwriter sings, “I am where the darkness falls and surrounds us all,” a place that he affirms is a “call to arms.” That track, “I Am the Light,” sums up what listeners might experience in this powerful collection of songs with lyrics describing pain, death, violence, loss, and survival. However, the driving, rocking, and bluesy musical settings demonstrate Smith is a street fighter who’s seen it all and isn’t going to slow down despite all the hits he’s taken.
Before and after a self-released album in 2008, Smith’s compositions appeared in films like Shelter and TV series like Sons of Anarchy and Californication. The growing response to these songs led to his signing with Unison Music Group in 2011. The label particularly liked White Buffalo’s intense live shows featuring Smith and band members Matt Lynott on drums and Tommy Andrews on bass, a band known for pushing hard on stage and its self-reliance on the road. As a result, while White Buffalo is earning critical favor for Smith’s storytelling, it should not go unnoticed that his “power trio” gives his compositions an energy and drive few other songwriters of this breed can boast. Without them, Smith would be an obvious heir to the folky likes of Leonard Cohen and Dylan; with them, White Buffalo is rousing rock of the old school with punch and intelligence.
While some of the tracks are autobiographical and others are dark character sketches, the album is unified in both style and substance. Smith’s tough, belting voice opens the set with “Ballad Of A Dead Man” where the setting is a battlefield. In “How The West Was Won,” the weapon is a gun; in “One Lone Night,” he asks questions like, “Should I end it all on this here knife?” In “The Pilot,” Smith wishes he was a fighter pilot or an outlaw, and “Stunt Driver” is about imagining what harsh motivations shape such drivers.
A few tracks are on the gentle, acoustic side including “Sleepy Little Town” and “Wish It Was True” where Smith tells his parents he wishes that his dreams and hopes would line up with reality. Faster paced rockers are nostalgic as well. The strangely innocent pop melody of “BB Guns And Dirt Bikes” tells the story of a youthful brush with violence. The playground is where the cruel children of “The Witch” torment everyone, until ding-dong, the witch is dead.
Survival is also a dominant theme in songs like “The Bowery” where the singer bemoans the death of his wife in 1973, his memories of the downward spiral in the aftermath, and wondering what there is left to live for. The answers appear in “Hold The Line” and “Good Ol’ Day To Die” where Smith says he “ain’t gonna die today.” In short, White Buffalo draws from a warrior spirit to stake out their territory and conquer whatever life throws in their path. And they’re not going to slow down a minute while they roar through.
Once Upon a Time in the West, while not precisely a debut release, is still an important introduction to a fresh, welcome voice. The group delivers material that deserves wide appreciation, especially for those who wonder where the significant singer/songwriters are these days. This album is an outstanding kick-off for 2012, no matter if you love rock, country, folk, or the blues. Odds are, once you discover White Buffalo, you’ll want to help spread the word.