Rene West’s This Town

By Ken Shimamoto

Rene West is a Kansas-born singer-songwriter who grew up listening to folk ‘n’ country musics before spending her teen years hitchhiking around, harvesting experiences (every parent’s nightmare but the stuff of which great stories are made). Besides writing and performing her music, she’s also a visual artist (her works have shown at the New Orleans Museum of Art) and edjumikator (teaches photography and digital imaging at UTA). She’s been a regular at MacHenry’s songwriter nights (a groovy venue with an attentive, listening crowd that should be doing great biz now that they’ve relocated from the far reaches of the Wild West Side to artsy Magnolia Street, in proximity to cherished hipster hangs like the Chat Room, Spiral Diner, and Benito’s) and the Wreck Room’s FWAC Acoustic Mondays. The recently released This Town is her second CD.

She categorizes her songs as “character-driven narratives,” and her performance persona manages to avoid both of yer typical femme singer-songwriter archetypes – the waif and the tuff chick; West’s too intelligent and self-assured for any such posturing. Ain’t no soaring Baez- or early-Joni-esque soprano here, either. Rather, her voice is rough-hewn and earthy, inviting Joplin and PJ Harvey comparisons but not really sounding like either; there’s too much high lonesome Appalachiana in this midwesterner’s tones for that.

Live, she comes across like a rustic rock’n’roller; I remember hearing her perform with guitarist Glenn Milam on the little stage in the front of the Wreck a few years back and being reminded of nothing so much as an acoustic reimagining of third-album Velvet Underground. “Please Steal My Car” displays West’s barrelhouse rocker side here, while “Ain’t No Logic,” propelled by Jenni Mansfield Peel’s accordion, sounds like a Cajun band playing a Rolling Stones song.

Milam’s guitar decorates a couple of This Town tracks that also feature poet/spoken word artist William Bryan Massey III on surprisingly subtle and tasteful drums. The accompaniment for most of the album comes from Austinite Eric Hisaw on guitar and Earl Johnson on bass, with all manner of ornamental shading from multi-instrumentalist Rodger Harrison; they all do an admirable job of staying out of Rene’s way and highlighting the strengths of her songs – an underappreciated art.

Several of the songs here deal with the concerns of working stiffs trying to make it under trying circumstances – “Counting Pennies,” “Moon and the Stars,” “Close Out Sale,” “Please Steal My Car.” When West sings “It’s a close out sale, ain’t nothing here I need / We’ve grown bankrupt from all our greed,” she’s describing a reality about as far from American Idol as you can get – in other words, the one you ‘n’ I live in, not the one the protagonist in “Pretty” (who “gets her taste from magazines, romance novels, and movie screens” and “thinks she knows the score”) aspires to. The road trip setting of lost-relationship saga “Tulsa to Tallahassee,” with background harmonies from Quaker City’s Kree Evans, still sounds seductively inviting compared to the title track’s tale of losers trapped in a doldrumish hometown.

Maybe this is projection on my part, but in many of her songs, West seems to be asking what could prove to be the Question of Our Times: “How much [of whatever it is you’re looking for – love, freedom, comfort, security] is enuff?” “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” she sings at the end of “Cigarettes and Beer,” and I can think of no reason to disbelieve her.

Read More @