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At its most basic, art — music, writing, photography, painting, whatever — is about telling a story. Cormac McCarthy is renowned for his particular talents in this area, winning acclaim for his recent works “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men.” On his first solo effort, Ben Nichols, Lucero's gravel-throated singer and songwriter, takes inspiration from characters in what's generally considered McCarthy's opus, the blood-soaked and dust-encrusted novel “Blood Meridian.”
The result is a thoughtful record, satisfying in its musicianship and storytelling. Nichols' acoustic guitar is surrounded by the dark and sometimes wistful piano playing of Rick Steff, who's toured with Lucero since “Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers” and who here adds accordion to most tracks. Also joining Nichols is Todd Beene (Glossary, Ghostfinger), whose pedal steel polishes the songs' rough spots, giving them a subtle country sheen.
The album opens with the title track, “The Last Pale Light in the West.” It's one of the strongest on the album. Nichols' haggard voice is particularly suited to this material. The rest of the songs bear the names of characters from the novel and serve as searching studies of each. “The Kid” follows the book's main character, a young man who finds himself trapped in the business of killing Native Americans along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. “Tonight your soul's required of you,” Nichols sings.
“Chambers” is one of the record's most touching songs. It tells the story of a hired gun and the love he left behind. Here Nichols sings as sweetly as he can, helped along by a swirling accordion.
Most songs on the record are based on simple chord progressions and intricate picking patterns, highlighted with a twangy pedal steel and dark bass notes on the piano. Where Lucero conveys emotion with a mallet, Nichols here uses a scalpel. The songs are tightly crafted, brooding and mysterious, much like McCarthy's novel. Nichols has a tendency to over-sing, belting out chorus lines where a softer vocal track would have sufficed. He fights that here as the lyrics and the music complement one another.
Nichols said making the record was a “nice experiment,” but he has no hopes for a solo career. At seven songs it's short, but it makes for one hell of a story.