Starlight Highway takes you to the eye of Corinne West’s musical storm.
In the decade I have known and listened to Corinne West, her music has been both my refuge and my addiction. From the stomach-tightening interior ballad “Angel“ on her 2004 album, Bound for Living, to the drumming authority of “Pollen” in the 2014 re-mastered The Promise, Corinne West’s music has been in a class of its own, with a shelf of its own in my collection. Her new album, Starlight Highway will receive even a higher place of honor in my Corrine West shelf. Starlight Highway is transformative: it sounds – no, it feels – like Corinne has taken you to a different dimension, one that is sensual beyond what music is capable of. It courses through your headphones or speakers like a transfusion of her life-force to yours.
Listening to Starlight Highway puts you in the serene eye of a swirling storm of notes, images, rhythms, stories and above all, that voice. Starlight Highway unfurls the ripening of West’s voice that a decade ago soared crystalline clear, but sometimes cruised with jagged edges. The sharp edges are still there in Starlight Highway, but only when and how she wants them to be. From the rising octaves of determined hope in lines like my love I’m coming home in “Give Our ships Away” to the angelic insolence of I don’t mind what you may think/I know how to fly in “Monday’s Song”, to the quick-paced authority of the title song, West presents a tonal purity beyond her earlier recordings combined with a command and range hinted at in the previous album, The Promise, but not completely consummated until now, in Starlight Highway.
Because West puts you in the eye of the storm of her life in this album, Starlight Highway is a joy through head phones. It was birthed with a sound so lush and layered it that demands its own ear space. As an artist at the apex of Americana and folk music in both the USA and the UK, West attracts the finest musicians and she assembled a musical force equal to her own voice and guided them to record each song richly formed with guitars, mandolins, basses (electric and 7-string fretless) Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, drums and paired and backup vocals. She conducted them like a sorcerous-maestro in Starlight Highway to surface each note, each riff, each accent perfectly into ten songs, each of which exceeds the sum of its parts.
There are no covers in Starlight Highway. Each song was written by West or by West and Kelly Joe Phelps and draws on her peripatetic life as a 4th generation mountain-born Californian who left home at 16 with her guitar to travel the state in a converted school bus, played in hard rock bands in LA, studied theatre, restored antique bi-plane wings, worked as a stonemason and opened a fine art business in fused-glass and metal with a blacksmith.
West sets mood and the scene in Starlight Highway with “Trouble No More”, written with Phelps and moved along by Ricky Fataar’s soft, jazz-like brush-drum tempo and Phelps’ precise guitar notes accented with Mike Marshall’s mandolin. Calm, relaxed, satisfied, grounded in the lines lean back…trouble no more, West quickly puts you in her world for the rest of the album. Life is good, but there were many, many twists and turns getting here.
“Sweet Rains of Amber” carries you on one of the those twists and turns. West lets you create an image – mine is of a candlelit log cabin – where loves come and go but leave an impression for a lifetime. Time and time again/the angels sing…hold me for a while floats through your head, colored by Phelps’ superb guitar and vocals with West and John Burr’s Wurlitzer filling your inner eye with depth and mystery.
From the spare, darkness of “Amber” West throws us headfirst into the joyful turbulence of her unrestrained voice backed by full orchestration in “Give Our Ships Away”. A wind-whipped sea forms from Bruce Victor’s blues guitar, Burr’s soul-piercing B2 Hammond, dual mandolins by Mike Marshall and Marla Fibush, Phelps’ guitar and vocals, Joe Kyle Jr’s bass and Fataar helming a country drum kit. The result is part country rhythm, part blues, part rock and all addictive.
West settles us back down to the country soil with “Audrey Turn the Moon” and “Cry of the Echo Drifter”, both written with Phelps who joins West’s rhythm guitar with his own precision riffs. In “Cry of the Echo Drifter”, West tells a lover that without you beside me/I won’t last another day, one of those twists and turns. As Marshall’s mandolin injects sparks and color into the gentle song Phelps adds his voice to hers on the vocals to fill out the melody and the message.
“Gypsy Harbor”, links West’s and Phelps’ voices in a way that lets West move past the dual vocals and extend her high notes to add authority to the story while Phelps’ guitar punctuates the swaying lyrics. “Gypsy Harbor” is a stripped down yet complex stew of notes and words that chemically react together to catalyze your musical pleasure receptors with West’s trademark seamless blend of folk, blues, romance and pain.
The tempo and the mood downshift in “Find Me Here” a soft jazz ballad showcasing the crystal pure tones that West can command to evoke intimacy and exultation. Arranged like a night club serenade with piano, muted percussion, electric bass and West accompanying herself on the tambourine, “Find Me Here” would be as at home in a jazz evening at Carnegie Hall in New York or LA’s Hollywood Bowl as it is in Starlight Highway.
And then we are back running down the country road, literally, as West kicks into the title song with toe-tapping drums, blues organ, rhythm guitar and mandolin highlights. Starlight Highway/rolling home sings West, punctuated by Phelps’ on- the -money guitar notes and driven by a mandolin afterburner before she drops her voice into a husky drawl and talks directly to us of strangers and madness and then rises up to fling the lines spoken with the angels while we tangle with the sun into our ears. Put this one on repeat.
My favorite song on the album is “Monday’s Song”, a simple ode to the eye of the storm – the quiet recesses of safety and love along a life’s highway that has both starlight and storms. A subdued drumline back West’s rhythm guitar and tambourine joined in the quarter notes by a indulgent bass tempo from Karl Sevareid and Edo Castro. This is West at her magical best. Her voice penetrates your soul, seeding your mind with pastel pictures of her memories — and maybe yours — in an intimate voice so gentle, so soft, and yet so powerful. “Monday’s Song” stops all distraction and pulls you into West’s past. To me, “Monday’s Song” is the purest and most direct transfusion of her life-force to you. It is why she has her own shelf in my music collection. No one else can do this.
West leaves us with a 2011 song that she wrote and performed originally with Phelps who joins her on guitar and vocals, “Night Falls Away Singing”. Evocative of her life crisscrossing states, oceans, loves and losses, West returns to her smooth country voice to wrap your heart in the chorus:
Sing for me soft till the night falls away/leave the struggling darkness with nothin to say/
Hold me so tight that the world can’t get in/ then dance with me darling again
Holding you tight and dancing with you is exactly what Starlight Highway does. But it does much more; it gives West’s fans a deeper look into her past and present. Usually reticent about her personal life, Starlight Highway draws upon West’s history to chronicle incidents, loves, loses and emotional turmoil and calm more personally than she has in earlier works. The result is a music from the eye of the musical storm that is the wonder of Corinne West.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!
Starlight Highway by Corinne West
available on iTunes and corinnewest.com