California singer/songwriter echoes Dylan and The Grateful Dead in Americana song cycle.
Jeffrey Halford is a rock & roll lifer, a Texas-born, California-bred traditionalist trading in Americana mythologies. His solo album, West Toward South, serves them up not repurposed so much as distilled, harking back to a time when outlaws had more style and panache than today’s suits. “A Town Called Slow” begins things in medias res:
We drank that bottle til the last drip
I reached over to grab the pot
Pulled out a sawed-off with one side cocked
Bad men like that you gotta let ‘em know you’re here
I shot down the chandelier
Ladies screamed when they heard that sound
Pour me another round
It’s a Wild West gambling scenario nodding to the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia songbook (see “Deal,” “Loser,” etc.), with vivid, albeit less metaphysical, imagery. Halford clearly loves the tradition, and he doubles down on it for this 10-track song cycle in which characters reappear as they move across the continent.
“The Ballad of Ambrose and Cyrus” sketches the tale of apparent gold-rush buddies who, having hit it big, decide to part ways, unspooling over acoustic guitar (played with impressive fingerpicking), piano and cirrus clouds of pedal steel. “Dead Man’s Hand” returns to the gambling table to ponder the fate of said characters; “Gallows” finds Ambrose about to meet his end, until he doesn’t; the title track charts Cyrus’ movements drifting from the Northeast down to where the weather suits his clothes. Halford’s ability to weave in canonical references is impressive; there are Dylan allusions, naturally, with “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” the most obvious. But Halford’s storytelling is less compressed than that, more impressionistic. He can leave you wanting more specifics, and at times he seems torn between furthering his elliptical narrative and attending to self-contained songcraft concerns. But the playing is tasty, and the arrangements are on-point, so there’s pleasure to be had while filling in the gaps. Pour yourself another round.
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