Typically, when I deem an album worthy of a full listen-through, the cover is either tan/brown, or a faded-rust color, and has “America”, “West”, “Blues” or “Delicious Banjo Jams” in the title. White Buffalo’s “Once Upon A Time In the West” only proved the value of those strange criteria, as I was instantly, enjoyably transported to a gritty, honest, heartland America in my first White Buffalo experience.
NOTE: The following review may be skewed by the venue I chose to listen to this album in. “Once Upon A Time In the West” makes for phenomenal driving music.
The album kicks-off with the easy, sentimental “Ballad of a Deadman”, which forces the listener, quite abruptly, to accept a potent dose on honest, soulful songwriting we hear all-too-rarely in contemporary music. “Ballad” also displays, possibly more-so than any other track on the album, the soothing, gentle possibilities of Smith’s voice. In all honesty, Smith’s voice is like smooth, vocal chocolate, refreshing, in a season with too much vanilla.
After the first song closed, I had already grown into a White Buffalo fan. I can dig soulful, Americana folk any day of the week. After that acceptance, however, the second track, “How the West Was Won” punched the album into overdrive.
As it turns out, “Once Upon A Time In the West” also delivers on the “delicious banjo jam” aspect of my strange musical criteria. The sudden tempo difference between “Ballad” and “How the West Was Won” could catch anybody, joyfully, off-guard. The urge to turn up the volume of the album in my mother’s Hyundai became irresistible within seconds. This was windows-down, whiskey-running American spirit music.
“How the West Was Won”, and the sequential “The Pilot” put Smith’s impressive vocals on full-display, essentially making them an unshakable, passionate centerpiece for the album. Not only does Smith have a depth, and grit, in his voice so unfortunately missed, but the second and third tracks proved he could pack a real, energetic punch with his vocal abilities. For lack of other suitable comparisons, The White Buffalo sounds like a clash between Counting Crows and the Zac Brown Band, with audibly delectable results.
Responding to the energy of “Pilot” and “How the West Was Won”, Smith takes a breather from his lyrical action scenes to croon the album’s two ballad pieces, “One Lone Night” and “Sleepy Little Town”. While, normally, I see ballad tracks as necessary filler requested of artists for miscellaneous purposes, Smith’s ballads seem to avoid this category. As with the rest of “Once Upon A Time In the West”, even the songwriting of Smith’s ballads have an undeniable honesty woven into their words.
Following “Town” is the not-fully-a-ballad, not-yet-a-ramblin’-song “BB Guns and Dirtbikes”. Again, Smith and his unbridled lyrical purity scribe out another flawless track, this time about youth and pride. The heavy loads of sentiment, paired with Smith’s clever writing instantly make “BB Guns” a standout track.
Smith trails “BB Guns” with, unfortunately, the only tracks I feel could have been performed better on the album. Don’t get me wrong: “The Bowery”, and “Wish It Was True” are not bad songs. They’re not even average songs; They’re still fantastic pieces, crafted well with Smith’s powerful voice and writing abilities. The tracks just seem slightly on the… well, boring side. They don’t stick as well with the listener as previous songs.
Thankfully, Smith quickly slaps the doubtful expression off my face, following “Wish It Was True” with the amped-up, even demanding “Hold the Line”, reviving the earlier, rapid paced appeal of the album.
The last stretch of “Once Upon A Time In the West” delivers to listeners what may be two of the most eclectic, unique tracks on the album, “Good Ol’ Day to Die” and “The Witch”. The songs, featuring Smith’s signature bass growl, are wonderfully composed, stretching the singing and writing capabilities of Smith, and the White Buffalo band.
As a final word, I was instantly brought in by Smith’s honest lyricism and powerful vocal delivery in his full-length, White Buffalo debut “Once Upon A Time In the West”. Despite a slower mid-section, the album as a whole has become a quick favorite of mine, and I would highly recommend The White Buffalo to anybody in need of a reminder of what pure, honest heartland rock is.
Final verdict: 8/10
“How the West Was Won”
“BB Guns and Dirtbikes”
“Good Ol’ Day to Die”