The guitars grow into beasts as we waltz through the opening bars of “Deeper than Hell,” one of ten tracks to be discovered in Jeffrey Halford & the Healers’ West Towards South, but this won’t be the only time that they exert their dominance over everything else in this awesome new album from the Americana crew. “A Town Called Slow,” stripped down to its nuts and bolts, is stylized around its string play and the evocative churn that it uses to colorize Halford’s lyrics. Though executed at a different pace than those two songs, “Sea of Cortez” is just as much a guitar-centric piece as they are, and even if it didn’t have a single lyric in its three and a half minutes of sonic bliss, I have a feeling that through its moving musicality, we’d still understand the narrative that the band is conveying to us here.
Pastoral poetry is a staple ingredient in the recipe for success that Halford and the Healers try out in West Towards South, and in “Geronimo,” “The Ballad of Ambrose and Cyrus” and “Willa Jean,” it becomes so rousing that it’s hard to engage with anything else going on in the tracks. I’ve listened to a few of the records that this band has put out prior to this one, and I’m not sure that Halford has ever been this vulnerable with fans before. He’s regaling us with a tall tale about two brothers, but I get the vibe that the message here is a lot more complex than its highly stylized cosmetics would have us believe. It’s personal, it’s intimate, and more than anything else, it’s as American as apple pie.
I would have preferred a little more urgency as the record enters its second act after “A Town Called Slow,” but the fluidity of the material is rock-solid nonetheless. “Gallows” and “Geronimo” take us into a darker corner of the band’s songwriting than I was expecting to hear in this record, but it actually balances out some of the looser, more instrumentally-focused material that we get started with in the title track and “Dead Man’s Hand.” Jeffrey Halford, Adam Rossi and Bill MacBeath don’t waste our time with any filler in West Towards South; from the time we get lost in the slow grind of the first song to the very moment when “The Ballad of Ambrose and Cyrus” disappears into the ethers from which it came, this band is hitting it hard and playing as if their lives depended on it.
There are a lot of really good records coming out in the next few months from artists in rock, soul, pop, blues, hip-hop, electronica and country music, and though West Towards South was clearly conceived with a very specific audience in mind, it’s a strong effort from a skilled band of brilliant musicians who are keeping the flame of Americana burning as hot as it did some half century ago. The more surreal moments in Jeffrey Halford & the Healers’ latest album actually fit in elegantly with the alternative country movement’s new look entering 2020 as well as that of indie folk, but make no mistake about it – this is as original a sound as you’re likely to find all year long, regardless of genre or scene.