Graded on a Curve:
True West, Drifters

While it’s often discussed today through a too small number of names, the Paisley Underground scene was also fairly deep and much more varied than some observers have proposed. One of the earliest and most undersung groups in this heavily ’60s inclined but predominantly tasteful deal was True West, and their 1984 LP Drifters features enough sustained inspiration, songcraft, and instrumental prowess to also establish them as one of the best in the style.

These days, many consider the outstanding Los Angeles outfit The Dream Syndicate to be the very finest (if not necessarily most famous) act to spring from the early-‘80s rock uprising known as the Paisley Underground. While I’m not really in agreement with that assessment, conveniently crowning them as the undisputed kings (Steve Wynn, Karl Precoda, Dennis Duck) and queen (Kendra Smith) of the whole Paisley state of affairs, if an error of historical judgment, is by no means an especially grievous one.

Indeed, quite a handful of other worthies were part of this roughly geographical circumstance, namely The Long Ryders, Green on Red, Tucson AZ’s Naked Prey, The Three O’Clock, and even the early Bangles (seek out their first single, released as The Bangs, and the ’82 four-song EP “Bangles” for evidence, or just recall the pretty good cover of Big Star’s “September Gurls” that’s on Different Light), but those early Syndicate slabs, precisely their self-titled debut EP on Wynn’s Down There label and the quickly ensuing full-length The Days of Wine and Roses on Slash-subsidiary Ruby still offer a truly massive kick to the ear.

And to have heard those records, or witnessed the band playing live, in the actual year of their release must’ve delivered an even bigger boot to the consciousness. Both were issued in ’82, with hardcore in full roar but quickly running out of ideas and the music charts stubbornly resistant to guitar bands. So, awarding The Dream Syndicate supremacy of this particular scene is understandable, but it’s still faulty.

For starters, if not the best Paisley Underground rec by my estimation, Rain Parade’s ‘83 disc Emergency Third Rail Power Trip is far closer to the neo-happening’s psych side than is The Dream Syndicate’s Velvets/Crazy Horse vibe. And the album that best represents this scene is probably the sole 9-song self-titled covers LP from the Paisley all-star group Rainy Day (members of the Syndicate, Three O’Clock, Rain Parade, and Bangles Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson help to shape the record.) And we shan’t overlook the work of the often deeply psychedelic Opal, the site of Kendra Smith’s initial post-Syndicate activity.

So, no single band or record really rises to the top of the Paisley Underground’s motions, with the whole thing best assessed as exactly what it was; a rich, momentary movement. And looking back on it, where The Dream Syndicate landed a fairly anticlimactic deal with A&M, The Three O’Clock (by then a very uninteresting band) ended up signed to Paisley Park (Prince holding a real affection for this scene), David Roback (formerly of Rain Parade and Opal) scored in the ‘90s with the oft terrific Mazzy Star, and those Bangles achieved full-blown pop fame, one of the sweetest of all the Paisley groups sorta got a raw deal.

That band was True West. Hailing from Davis, CA, they were one of the earliest exponents of this stylistic scenario, with members Russ Tolman and Gavin Blair previously playing with Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith in the Davis-based crew The Suspects, a band that sorta serves as Paisley Underground Zero. The Suspects released one 45, “Talking Loud” b/w “It’s Up to You” in ’79, a very fun slab of no-big-deal new-wave-ish guitar pop/rock with Smith vocalizing like a sassy Moe Tucker (I’d love to get my hands on a physical copy), but when she and Wynn defected to L.A., True West was born.

The band’s first 45 was the ’82 self-release, “Lucifer Sam” b/w “Mas Reficul,” the A-side of the record being a sturdy treatment of the Barrett-era Pink Floyd nugget. And to emphasize their dedication to psych sensibilities, the flip was the same song backwards. While that gesture isn’t likely to provoke many spins (unless the ’87 cassette version of Sonic Youth’s debut EP is a personal fave), this is still a peach of a single that not only set True West in motion but also solidly placed them at the forefront of the early Paisley brigade via Blair’s strong vocals and Tolman and Richard McGrath’s dual guitar attack.

Coming next was a five-song self-titled EP that eventually became part of the eight-song Hollywood Holiday as released in ’83 by the French imprint New Rose. And it a great record that includes “Lucifer Sam” and a batch of backward looking, forward thrusting originals, but its reputation as True West’s creative highpoint is, to these ears at least, something of a head-scratcher.

And that’s directly due to how Drifters, issued in ’84 on the PVC label, holds up as such a confident statement, and one that in retrospect details an admirable stylistic progression. Hollywood Holiday was so well-loved at the time of its release that it was basically inevitable that the more polished aura of its follow-up would register to varying extents as a letdown. But I didn’t hear either record until the later portion of the ‘80s, and while production sheen does slightly lessen its power, I’ve always valued Drifters a little more, a consideration that’s mainly due to how it successfully burrowed into the full potential of Paisley.

It’s all right there in opener “Look Around,” which wields tandem guitars that recall both the Velvets, and courtesy of McGrath, the singing leads of Tom Verlaine. The similarity of McGrath’s playing to the work of the Television guitarist was no new development, but here it’s offered with rising maturity and restraint. To elaborate, when first hearing Hollywood Holiday’s “It’s About Time,” the stinging string presence was so Television-like that it couldn’t escape being a little bit off-putting.

That’s not the case with “Look Around” however, with McGrath’s Verlaine-isms in proper balance and sounding downright excellent. Plus, McGrath’s Velvety electric strum (and additionally Steve Packenham’s drumming, which is assertive yet minimal ala Tucker) definitely recalls the sound of VU, but in a manner lightly remindful of The Feelies, it’s ultimately taken to a specifically ‘80s melodic guitar rock locale.

And Kevin Staydohar’s bass helps to deepen the song’s rhythmic drive as it simultaneously furthers its tunefulness, and Blair sings up a storm with skill, and just as importantly, conviction. So, from an instrumental standpoint, “Look Around” is deep in the pocket. The production might linger in bothering some hardliners (a few continue to complain of a troubling ‘80s drum sound, and yeah, it’s surely there), but at this late date the record’s smoother surface is more a matter of history than any blatant error in execution.

Drifters was produced by Paul Mandl, who is also notable in this context as the engineer Sandy Pearlman (he of Blue Öyster Cult fame) used for The Dream Syndicate’s spotty (but also kinda underrated) A&M debut Medicine Show. And as this record plays, a roughly analogous atmosphere of professionalism certainly becomes extant, but it impacts the whole in a manner that, unlike spots on that Syndicate LP, is hardly disruptive at all.

For proof, there’s “At Night They Speak,” a superb mid-tempo beauty move, with Blair’s rising emotionalism blending with the gorgeousness of the guitar interplay as the drumming pounds (and becomes more traditionally expressive) behind them. The next cut “Speak Easy” is more of a strummer, thought it still exhibits a high level of rock toughness, and while in spots Blair’s voice can be effectively described as soaring, his singing approach also continues in the unique, slightly edgy zone that’s found on the earlier True West efforts.

“Shot You Down” is a swell bit of chiming ‘80’s guitar-pop that’s quite redolent of ‘80s Hoboken, but through a forceful rhythmic base and Blair’s no-nonsense, ground-level delivery it sorta ends up transcending the style. Suffice to say, the tune’s plum perfect for a mix tape made for driving out of a town you’re never going to set eyes on again. And “What About You” finds McGrath smartly exploring those Verlaine qualities on a slower tune that’s dynamically deft and loaded with thick texture.

Side two opens with a bang with the also Hoboken-ist “Hold On,” though the cut (and this LP as a whole) might also give good strokes to fans of the more unabashed guitar-pop flavors chronicled in the ‘80s discography of the Flying Nun label, in particular Robert Scott’s excellent unit The Bats. From there “After the Rain” is reprised from Hollywood Holiday, and while a bit slicker it’s still one of the band’s best tunes, one that fits exceptionally well into Drifters’ sonic landscape.

“Backroad Bridge Song (What Could I Say)” is a trim rocker, finding Packenham back in minimalist mode as scrappy riffing, accents of Chris Cacavas’ guest organ and glistening solo turns from McGrath unwind around him. And Blair gives what might be his best showing on the entire album. Folks new to True West who share a special relationship with the glories of The Days of Wine and Roses should find this baby a total gas, though one that’s also pretty distinct.

Now honestly, I didn’t much care for the acoustic strumming of the country-folk “Ain’t No Hangman” when I first heard this album (though it does fit snuggly with the LP’s unspectacularly expressed cover theme). But time has found the tune to be a grower, mainly due to its abundance of National Steel slide work. And the carefully anthemic and chocked full of backing vocals “Morning Light” serves as a truly marvy closer. Anybody irritated by its pro-style slow fade-out is simply being a grouch; the song and this whole record have totally earned it.

For a period, True West was on the cusp of breaking into the ‘80s major label ballgame. They were fleeting sensations in the UK, making the cover of the three big music weeklies, momentum that was derailed when issues with work permits reportedly stymied an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. They also toured in support of R.E.M. as the big companies came a-courtin’, and the band even ended up in the studio with Verlaine as producer, but sadly True West’s story is one of dashed ambitions. But the records they made up to and including Drifters reveals that it’s not a tale of disappointing music.

After Drifters the band broke up due to the familiar issues of constant touring and expectations denied, though they reformed shortly after sans Tolman. Bluntly, I’m far from well-versed in the band’s subsequent work since I spent more time digging into Tolman’s initial solo effort, ‘86’s Totem Poles and Glory Holes. In a bummer turn, Staydohar died in ’87 of a heart valve infection.

In 2006, Tolman, McGrath, and Blair reformed True West for live shows, though it doesn’t seem that new recordings have arisen. The following year Atavistic compiled Hollywood Holiday and Drifters onto one CD and tacked three very interesting tracks from that Verlaine-produced session onto the end. They present an attractive alternate reality for Drifters, but fall far from instilling any sense of regret over the LP’s actual constitution. If vinyl is what you sensibly seek than some digging might be required, but once found I can’t imagine Drifters would be very expensive.

It kept popping up for around $2 in my local used bin back in the early ‘90s, and for a while I actually owned three copies of this at once. I eventually gave those dupes away, and in both cases the receiver was extremely chuffed. It’s a safe bet that anybody harboring a predilection for the Paisley Underground’s modus operandi who hears Drifters with fresh ears today will feel the same.


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