smooth, but not slick

Western Beat (Reprise)
Kevin Welch & the Overtones

By Allen Howie

Love and loneliness are the building blocks of just about every country album you could name (and most rock 'n' roll records, for that matter). The trick is to put a new spin on these well-worn themes, bringing them to life so vividly through music and words that they succeed in getting under the listener's skin.

On their second recording, the aptly titled Western Beat, Kevin Welch and the Overtones do just that, harnessing key elements of rock and country without sacrificing the vitality of either. In the process, they've recorded ten authentic and melodic slices of real life -- all but three written or co-written by Welch -- with an honesty that Garth Brooks has yet to unearth within the calculated confines of his music.

The record opens with the dreamy imagery of "Early Summer Rain," a flight from the regrets of the past to an uncertain future, with a chorus that sends the listener soaring above the dark clouds it conjures up. Welch sounds a lot like Danny O'Keefe, the brilliant, nearly forgotten talent behind the early-Seventies hit "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," but the song could easily pass for one of the Stones' country forays.

A churning "I Look For You," which finds Welch searching in vain for the love he abandoned when he was too young to realize what he had. While the Overtones play up a storm, he forges on, looking in each new face for some glimmer of what he left behind, never swerving from his course in spite of disappointment and emptiness.

The sweet sincerity of "Something 'Bout You" almost makes you think you've stumbled onto an outtake from Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" sessions. Welch resolutely proclaims his independence, even as love foils his best efforts to remain aloof. The singer marvels at his own actions, remarking that "I've been tapping my toes to the way you talk/I've been singing along when I watch the way you walk."

The wonderful, John Prine-ish "Sam's Town," tells a tale of a fortune made and lost, while the song's title character maintains a cheerful stoicism through it all. Kieran Kane's back porch mandolin keeps your toe tapping while Welch's droll delivery brings a smile to your face. Then, like the distant rumble of thunder on the horizon, comes "Same Old Rain," in which the singer finds himself trying once again to flee from the ever-present memory of a lost love.

Credit must be given to the Overtones, who sound like a real band throughout, not just some amalgam of studio vets. Their music is the heart of Western Beat, and Welch's dead-on writing and singing are its soul.