Update: The Niche website has now been taken down, scroll down the page to read the full review
This summer has seen the release of two albums from bands of very similar pedigree and perception with both albums even being released over the same weekend at the Sark Folk Festival – they are The Space Pirates of Rocquaine’s Vraic and Ruin and, the album I’m looking at here, Shiraibu from The John Wesley Stone.
Appropriately enough, the title a Guernsey French meaning a particularly heavy drinking session, which for a fair chunk of this album, is perfectly suited.
The album launches into life with the high octane Caffeine, Benzedrine, Nicotine which really sets up the stall of the band’s take on country music as it roars along at a mighty pace with the rhythm being the thing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and, within two and a half minutes will have you singing along to its chorus/title.
As well as this kind of roaring country number, also highlighted by Holly Gotta Hotrod, the album also lives up to its western side with some slower numbers that often bring the vibe of the more melancholy lone drunk at the bar than the party time drinking songs, and in doing so add a real sense of dynamic across the record.
These slower numbers are often sung by Nashville who, along with Tinshack, take the lion’s share of the time at the front of the band and really are its stars here, both vocally and in terms of instrumentation, particularly on the violin and harmonica respectively.
As the album rolls along we also get fronting outings from both Hillbill and, on one track, Tater, who also add their own dynamics to things and create a real feel that this is a genuine band, despite the fact that they have more links to the west coast of Guernsey than the deep south of the USA and, despite the music’s clearly retro nature, it comes without a whiff of the hipster vibe that has dominated so much of the so called “trust fund folk” of recent years – what you’re getting here certainly feels like some of the original three chords and the truth.
Amongst all of this its clear the band come with a real sense of humour too with Crack House Honey and Jersey Boy in particular bringing this to the fore, the former’s singalong chorus of “She’s my crack house honey and I’m her meth lab boy” and the latter dealing with an elicit love affair with a Jerseyman really making this clear.
As with many country and western songs the tracks on Shiraibu all tell a story and, much like the tone of the songs, this can generally be divided into two sorts. There are those, like the aforementioned Jersey Boy or A Darkness Inside, which are comparatively linear. Then there are the more raucous ones that take a more gonzo approach to storytelling, throwing all the facts your way in no particular order and generally at breakneck speed, but tell the tale just as well.
Ending on a track called The Road, with backing vocals by the fantastically named Wholly Methylated Street Choir, leaves things on a high that show how The John Wesley Stone have grown from entertaining and shambolic skiffle to fully fledged country and western, but have retained the sense of fun and honesty in their music that, to compare them to the earlier mentioned Space Pirates, makes them feel like the Pirates’ drunken, and slightly more edgy, friend and continues the trend for great albums being released in Guernsey this year across such a broad spectrum of styles.
And here’s a video of the band playing at The Fermain Tavern earlier in the year: