Ten years ago, Jim Ward was rocking out in At the Drive-In, happily fulfilling his title as "that other guitar player, you know, the one who isn't Omar." After that group's sad self-destruction, Ward moved on with two-thirds of his former band to form Sparta, a band that put out one pretty awesome EP and three inoffensive albums, never getting the same press/buzz/respect/whatever of his former band's other splinter group: the monolithic and often stupid Mars Volta.
And now it's 2008 and Ward is operating as a solo dude under the super neat moniker Sleepercar. His first record under that name, West Texas is sure to surprise fans of his earlier work, and is sure to hold them for at least a few listens.
Breaking away from the post-hardcore that spawned him, Sleepercar's West Texas has a lot more in common with likes of Ryan Adams or Wilco (hell, even U2 at times) than it does with Ward's other two big vehicles. Maybe the dude just needed a break after being in such loud bands for so long, but it's more likely that this quieter, folkier side has always been in him. The album has a very natural feel to it; Ward's country-folk strum is a much smoother transition from his noisier stuff than one might expect.
The album kicks off, and I mean it kicks off, with "A Broken Promise," which is an alt-country, shit-kicking anthem with a furious and catchy buildup. Sadly, it lacks a dramatic payoff or final crescendo to make the build worth it; the song is the audio equivalent of having some great sex with a lady/dude/whatever, but not getting off. Still, even without a payoff, it's one of the better songs on the album
Things progress pretty linear-ly from that point on. Songs either sound like Summerteeth-era Wilco (without the psychedelia) or post-Whiskeytown era Ryan Adams (without the douchebaggery), which isn't to say that the songs are bad, just a little familiar. If you're going to make a country album within the rock spectrum, you could do a lot worse than take cues from Wilco and Adams, two of the genre's best. "Wasting My Time," "Kings and Compromises" and "End of a Year" particularly stand out, with "Kings and Compromises" showcasing some pretty fine lyric writing on the part of Ward.
The biggest problem with the album, besides its familiarity, is Ward's voice. The man seems only to have two settings: pleasant, low-key hum and higher-pitched, throat-pushing yell. When the two get dubbed over each other in self-harmony, it sounds awesome (see "You Should Run), but more often than not, these two tones grow tiresome, and can't carry the quieter, more natural tone of the record.
Normally, I wouldn't fault a guy for having a rock voice, but it sounds off-putting within this setting.
As far as debuts go, West Texas is a strong one from Sleepercar. While not a standout hit record, it's a pleasant collection of songs that won't bore the listener. It's definitely got its share of catchy tracks, and it will probably find a home in your disc changer for at least a few weeks. It won't replace the hole that At the Drive-In left in your heart, but if nothing else, it serves as an example that people can grown past what they used to be.