WESTWOOD & WILLOW
Doorways, Vehicles, & Markets
* * * 1/2
San Francisco brothers Kevin and Sean Sullivan are one of the Bay Area’s most creative and prolific teams. Both together and on their own, they have tackled psychedelic prog rock (Sean’s Pericardium project), hip hop (SullyZ), and even Christmas music in the past. On the full-length debut by their main project, Westwood & Willow, the duo explores arty folk-country that somehow manages to balance a goofy sense of humor with a strong sense of sadness and isolation.
The dominant half of the band is Kevin, who plays guitar, writes all the lyrics, and does all the vocals. Sean, while hardly hidden, is largely in the background, playing bass and percussion as well as doing some backing vocals. (Please Do Not Fight multi-instrumentalist Erin Keely also plays violin on several tracks.) While Kevin’s voice is pleasant but not very distinctive, his lyrics are rife with odd witticisms and bizarre metaphors. Due to the minimal arrangements, the listener’s main focus is on Kevin’s lyrics, and listening to one of his stanzas unfold is like peeling back a present wrapper, expecting to get some boring book but instead finding the most exciting novel you’ll ever read, then discovering it has an introduction hand-written by your favorite rock star. As you read the book, you expect a predictable story, but the writing is keen, insightful, and rife with all sorts of verbal florettes.
Kevin seems to be a romantic--most of the songs on the album are odes to love and all its pains and pleasures. He also displays a very silly sense of humor: “Far Away” finds Kevin comparing he and his lover to condiments on toast. “There Was A Hen” is a rowdy country jam to drive camping hipsters into a granola-flinging frenzy. However, much of the album is very dark and bleak, filled with a sense of longing and despair. While the lyrics are never truly self-pitying, they can be a bit too humorless--for sadness to truly make an impact on the listener, there must be at least some glimmer of hope.
This is a fine offering, and despite the candy-and-wine mix of darkness and goofiness, the album does not sound schizophrenic. In fact, it is a remarkably cohesive album. Kevin’s lonely guitar and sad vocals blend well with Sean’s subtle arrangements, and they provide the album’s backbone. While the group’s sadness seems stretched at times, this is an excellent choice for anyone looking for folk music that is witty and charming but not saccharine, intellectual and thought-provoking but not relentlessly depressing.