A Country Western punches towards pop with 'Life on the Lawn' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Philadelphians likely know A Country Western as a slowcore-adjacent rock band, on the rise alongside acts like They Are Gutting A Body Of Water (TAGABOW), Knifeplay, full body 2, or 22° Halo. The new Life on the Lawn, out today, marks the band’s first work under Pittsburgh-run label Crafted Sounds, and their first project that wasn’t released independently. Since their formation during the quarantined setting of 2020, the band has grown from two to four members, and has amassed over 40K monthly listeners on Spotify prior to this album.

From the first verse of the opening track “Great is the Grip of the Hawk,” it’s clear that A Country Western is stepping in a more live and loud direction. The new album was mostly recorded in the band’s practice space in South Philly, which explains the shift towards modern rock production and away from the softer, electronic influences found on 2021’s birdfeeder, ACW’s most recent full-length project. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” a track from their popular 2022 split EP with TAGABOW, hints toward this brighter rock pivot, but with much more unpredictable production.

The washy B-section of “Sidewalk” sounds more familiar, and the track rides out an extended guitar solo for a comfortable entry into the project. In comparison, “The Dreamer” takes a step away from experimentation and towards pop. It was the album’s leadoff single, and if it comes off as somewhat safe, remember not all tracks need to be unconventional, especially when followed by a downtempo, six-minute progressive ride. “The Spine” has woeful chord changes and pulsing strums of guitar that are very satisfying and simple, usually a main appeal of “slowcore” or “shoegaze” music. At this point, the album really clicks into gear, allowing the listener to zone out and feel the moving progression.

As a self-tagged “power pop” album (see their Bandcamp listing), the band could be trying to distance themselves from the aforementioned, Internet-stigmatized labels that they had received in the past. Derek Hengemihle’s lackadaisical vocals and writing adapt well to this louder, more energetic direction, although they become more incomprehensible amongst the added distortion. The airy guest vocals from Winter are softly tucked into the layers of guitars on “How Far,” resulting in a whispery presence from the LA-based artist. Her vocals are an interesting contrast to the song’s instruments, as it’s one of the grittiest tracks on the album.

A Country Western playing live in West Philly | photo by John Vettese

“Ridgeline” segues into a chunk of shorter rock tracks that highlight the band’s songwriting prowess. The electric guitar lead lines shine throughout the album, but “Magnetic” harnesses them particularly well. A few of the chords on “For A Voter” also deliver a potent sting of emotion, exchanging vocals for a guitar riff. These three songs have great accessible appeal without sacrificing character.

The acoustic tape warble of “Hiding Out” changes pace and functions stylistically as a transition into the last song’s regretful build. The extended guitar solo of “Wasting the Weekends” is grandiose and fairly simple at the same time, delivering a powerful moment of contemplation to close the album. It harnesses the powers of simplicity, noise and melancholy that define the hazy, alternative subgenres of rock, which have resonated in Philadelphia’s DIY music in recent years.

Life on the Lawn is disguised as a significant change in pace for the band, but beneath the gothic-country imagery and polished singles, their DIY character still stands. A Country Western took a step out of the bedroom, ending up with a more “live band” sounding record; it’s a step that Another Michael took last year with Wishes To Fulfill (with tamer results sonically). While the production change leaves behind a bit of lo-fi, homegrown inspiration, A Country Western presents more memorable hooks and contagious energy while still retaining the dour and laid-back songwriting of their roots.

Following a short run of shows in preparation for the album, A Country Western will be playing in Philly twice this spring; at the First Unitarian Church supporting Glitterer on April 19th and at The Foundry on May 8th with Hurry and Cloud Nothings. Life on the Lawn is now available to stream or purchase, with physical copies available via Bandcamp or Crafted Sounds.

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