From the very first second of Stephen Lee’s “West Of Twenty-Three,” you love him. As he stretches out the words “I,” “got” and “a,” with nothing else behind him, it’s hard not to feel your eyebrows raise in wonderment. Then, when he finally caps the thought with “can in my hand, I got beers in my belly” … well, dude wins all of the endearing points. It’s inevitable that this is going to be fun. It’s inevitable this is going to be a trip.
And it is. Armed with a punk-rock rasp and Americana ethos, Stephen Lee is the unknown Baltimore version of Chuck Ragan or Tim Barry. All of the songs here are boozy, sloppy, aggressive and acoustic-based in the best ways. This is one of the rare cases of the guy at the party with an acoustic guitar who you actually want to be around. Just sit back and let him fill the air with a very specific — and very intoxicating — blend of balladry.
You can’t get much more in-your-face than opener “Cans and Beers,” which, in addition to the aforementioned introduction, is an uptempo romp that instantly pegs the singer as someone whose authenticity you don’t dare question. Filling it out is Jon Patton’s electric guitar that turns up the country twang to just the right level. It’s the sound of CBGB’s originating in Nashville.
The only real knock here is Bill Scheid’s drums. They’re just so loose. A song like “One More,” which starts out with single kick drum notes, suffers because of Scheid’s inability to keep up with the record’s star. Listen closely to the first verse, and you’ll notice how the drums occasionally fade down in the mix, presumably to hide how lackadaisical they become. When they ultimately fade back up, Scheid is still a quarter-second behind everyone else. Lee would be better served negating percussion altogether.
Similar problems plague “Bukowski.” Yeah, Aaron Mirenzi’s banjo adds a layer of roots that works well here, and sure, Kerra Holmgren’s backing vocals are lovely in all the right ways, but … holy moly, the drums feel lost. More deflating is the fact that the first 30 seconds of the song survives without any stick work, laying the base for what could have been a charming little tune. Instead, what we get is an unsure performance from Scheid that only clutters the noise.
All is not lost, however, on a song like “New Wyman Park Restaurant.” Closing out the record in style, the longest track of the nine is pure Stephen Lee, warts and all. Backed by nothing but his own acoustic guitar, it’s a moment that makes you yearn for more of the same, especially as he addresses “the waitress with the Farrah Fawcett hair.” He can ramble a bit, but it suits him well, especially considering how the guy’s sense of humor pierces through a lot his lyrics with enough ease to make a line like “living life like this don’t always turn out for the best” cut just a little bit deeper than it would coming from anyone else.
That same vivid lyricism turns a song like “Again And Again” into far more fun than one might think. Profane and self-effacing, it’s the set’s most memorable moment thanks to the singer’s insistence on pulling no punches (Holmgren’s harmonies don’t hurt, either). “I take the backroads from Pittsburgh home/ I don’t mind the highways or paying any tolls/ But I always miss my exit/ recalculate, correct it/ Turn around and f@#! it up again,” he sings, and all you want to do is get him a GPS that works.
He’s that kind of guy, Stephen Lee: infinitely relatable and perpetually easy to root for. This is someone who knows how to connect with his audience. “West of Twenty-Three,” even at its worst, never strays from the very real fact that you can’t take your ears off him. Or, perhaps more importantly, that you shouldn’t take your ears off him. It’s fearless enough to be labeled punk rock, provocative enough to be labeled interesting and twangy enough to be labeled country. You never quite know what’s coming around the bend.
And that — as is the case with every great artist — is all anyone should need to give Stephen Lee the respect he deserves.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **