The White Buffalo
Once Upon a Time in the West
(Unison Music Group)
[Rating: 4 Stars]
Jake Smith, a.k.a, The White Buffalo, is a genuine storyteller. On the band’s second LP, Once Upon a Time in the West, the hard-driving country/rock singer spins tales of men on the edge of society: outlaws, poet-warriors—and the dead.
His firebrand live shows have deservedly gained him a loyal following, but his storytelling ability has landed his songs on hit shows, like Sons of Anarchy and Californication.
Two of the better songs on the album, “The Pilot,” and “How the West Was Won,” also appeared on last year’s EP, Lost and Found.
On “The Pilot,” Smith imagines what it would be like to be the song’s title character, “I was I was a fighter pilot/ Soaring over everyone and everything/ through the smoke and fire, imagine the hell I’ll bring.” His version of the pilot is some sort of avenging outlaw. The idea is carried out through most of his songs—in fact, this is what makes him an obvious fit for “The S.O.A.” where he’s practically part of the show.
The other two musicians in the three-piece band compliment Smith’s whiskey-soaked singing, helping to add an infectious swing to his warm but often stark baritone.
On the existential ballad, “One Lone Night,” Smith earnestly contemplates, “It will be one lone night/ should I buy a ticket for a midnight flight/ Or should I end it all on this here knife.” He continues on the refrain: She says try now, she says try now/ Try now, Try now.” Smith always seems to be fighting something, and the thematic lifeblood of this album is resiliency.
Smith channels his concerns about the state of war in the naturalistic, “The Ballad of a Deadman.” He tells the story of dead soldiers; however, he highlights the point-of-view of those left behind, mainly, a despondent mother. Smith sings, “She wonders where, when and why/ She could’ve tucked him in his bead/ with a kiss on his cheek and on his head/ Well he’d stay alive.” And as the track builds Smith rebukes the travails of war, “Well the moon and the stars can’t cast shadows/ What is wrong?/Well our boys are dead/ They’ve been misled.”
On the standout track, “Wish It Was True,” Smith reveals his resignation and a plea for forgiveness, “Mother I tried to do right by you/ To do what you asked me to/ I did wrong and I knew.” Smith’s brutally honest lamentations are what separate him from the hundreds of singer-songwriter’s searching for truth. In this, as in many of his songs, the highs and lows serve as a warning to listeners—as if he’s pleading for understanding. Smith continues in the song’s stirring climax, “There’s no pain, there’s no misery/ Just polish the blood and bruise/ There’s just no way you could lose/ I wish it was true.”
Smith’s candor in this collection of hard-won songs is admirable. The gravity of these tracks serve as somewhat of an announcement of Smith’s arrival, and it appears he doesn’t plan on going anywhere soon. On “Good Ol’ Day to Die,” Smith growls, “Oh, I ain’t gonna die today.”