Sam West's first studio release, "Demonstrations," 2008, showcases a broad range as a songwriter and myriad musical ability. The disc could just as easily be called Evolution, as it showcases not only West's forays into diverse genres, but also his artistic progression as he unifies the sometimes disparate elements of the early stages of his career into that most elusive quality: a definitive and engaging style.
West was born and raised in Marion, Illinois, where he first took an interest in music listening to his father, a joke-telling forest ranger, strum a guitar and sing Hank Williams tunes.
His affinity for poetry, fiction, and wordplay of all kinds made the leap to songwriting an obvious choice. Before he could drive, the walls of his room were papered with handwritten lyrics, and to this day West's apartment is usually littered with notebooks and scraps of inky paper scrawled with poems and ideas for songs.
For a few years, though, West had no public outlet. Then he and a pair of high-school buddies-- one of whom was Andy Novara, his constant bandmate to this day-- decided to put a band together. Out of sheer necessity, West took up the bass, which would later become his weapon of choice.
This began West's constant foray into music. A member of several bands - from bluegrass to blues, funk to folk - West dove headfirst into the sonic spectrum. The many different styles and genres seeped into his music.
While West has contributed to a number of bands and has an array of musical allies, Demonstrations is distinctly his. He did the writing, arranging, and vocals, played bass and acoustic guitar, and worked closely with producer Mike Lescelius. Longtime collaborater Andy Novara also contributed electric guitar licks on the album's faster and funkier tracks.
Demonstrations is over a year in the making, which owes a lot to West's sense of perfectionism. "I had to give myself a release date," he says. "It could have been another year otherwise." It was also West's first extended stint in the studio, an experience that he said helped him learn what not to do in the future.
The hard work paid off. Demonstrations is an outstanding album, eclectic yet singular. The front half of the disc consists of more introspective tracks, and the record builds to a rollicking finish. The jazz-infused rock familiar to funk fans is tightened up on tracks like "Lift up the Lid" and "World Girl." "Whiskey Wings" adds bluesy flourishes to this aesthetic before swelling into sonorous, moody pop à la the Animals.
West shows off his funkier side on a pair of concurrent tracks, "Stella" and "Appletoast." The latter is an instrumental West cowrote with Novara, which echoes one of his finest unrecorded songs, the sardonic "Fool's Paradise." The former, an irrepressible dance tune with a crunchy bass line, is a giddy fusion of Emersonian sentiments and George Clinton funkadelics: "I got my soul and I got my faith/I got my evolution/I got my time and I got my space/I got my own solution just in case."
One of the standout cuts on the album is "Don't Die for Me," a ballsy antiwar song that blasts through the milquetoast sentiments of so many folk ditties. Against a rocking, full-band arrangement, West declares, "Don't die for me/I don't need your illusions/Don't die for me/Your executive conclusions/Don't die for me/Get on off the Army bases/Don't die for me/Just be free to live free."
West says he doesn't consider "Don't Die for Me" a protest song. "Too many protest songs are just about saying, 'Fuck you,'" he says. Instead, "Don't Die For Me" is a story song-- and a true story song at that. The songwriter said he got the idea when he read an article in Mother Jones about Sergeant Macy, a soldier who grew disillusioned with war after he blew up a car full of civilians in Iraq, then returned home and became a protester. While the chorus leaves little question about West's antipathy for the Iraq war, the rest of the song's lyrics tell the sympathetic story of a soldier who is misled and eventually cast aside by those who put him in danger. "Priceless lies inside a room/Honest ties to each other's tomb/Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours/We'll scratch each other's backs until the blood runs and pours."
West says "Please Explain," which opens the album and is more of a straightforward indie-rock tune, is indicative of the direction he's heading in. After writing more songs around a bass groove or focusing on intricate jazz arrangements, he's turning back to his love of lyrics and poetry.
"Demonstrations" is a step in the right direction, and and outstanding first album for this male solo artist.
Excerpts from Nightlife Magazine, Southern Illinois