So I finally got a copy of the eagerly anticipated Men of Westenesse compilation out on Firestation a couple of months ago. Although you never know with these 80s retrospectives full of unreleased tracks (Firestation runs the whole gamut from The Bloody Marys to The Desert Wolves) I couldn't help but have high expectations for this cd. I'd heard two songs before: "The Coldest Water" which is one of my absolute favourites from the late 80s, and "Boating" which was one of the better selections on the fifth volume of The Sound of Leamington Spa but still not essential.
Of course, the cd starts off with "The Coldest Water", and as I sing along after the key change the suspense grows. And when "English Tragedy", mastered from a crackly copy their only ep, fades in with some backwards feedback and switches into one of the more heartbreaking pop ballads I've heard - I know that the whole compilation is going to be full of pristine janglepop. There's really no need to say anymore, because none of the following tracks will let you down. Not "This Is Your Life", the third song from The Coldest Water 7" from 1989, not "Boating" and not the eleven unreleased tracks. There's some tape hiss on those, but not more than you can live with, the only question mark is the omission of "Everybody's Fan Club" (the last track on the ep). Perhaps it was just a weak song, and in that case the comp is probably all the better for it. As it is now, it's right up there with The Nivens and Hey Paulette (the best of Firestation's output in other words), but still nothing can touch the Desert Wolves cd.
Men of Westenesse have their distinct sound, although there are similarities to Mighty Mighty here and there (cf. "This Is Your Life" and "My Old Schoolfriends" with their perky bass lines). All the songs show above-average craftsmanship and some excellent guitar-playing. My favourites on second listen are the laidback "Mr + Mrs Talk of the South" with some prominent acoustic guitar contributing to the sound, the simple "All My Friends" (only song under the 2-minute mark here!), the wonderful melody of "I Call You Thomas", and "The World and His Wife". The latter is also the title of The Rileys' only album... and an Elvis Costello song (no cover though!). To wrap it up, there's a second version of "The Coldest Water" which perhaps feels too much like an effort to start and finish the compilation with its strongest song. But I can't complain. I only wish the Big Red Bus lp was this interesting. MoW deserve to have released an album instead. Now unfortunately, we will never get to hear these songs in their full glory. A extra star sticker for the sleeve detailing the members' current occupation!
CLOUD 84 Men of Westenesse - I Call You Thomas