The Whiskey Priest is in fact Seth Austin, a singer songwriter with an impressive beard and a country outlook who makes his music in Austin, the San Francisco of Texas. As well as the beard, he has a fine moniker, culled from Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory (although the ‘e’ he adds to ‘whiskey’ brings in curious Irish overtones). His first album, begun in a church attic on a four-track, arrives weighed down by a high risk press release from record label, Rainboot. It declares, “It’s probably fairly unusual that a record label can, with any real level of honesty at least, suggest that they’re about to release a truly ‘classic’ album – one that could actually affect its audience to the point where it deserves the tag ‘life-changing’ – but we have that record.” Support for your artists is laudable, but probably only Blood on the Tracks, Here Come the Warm Jets and errr… Kimono My House could live up to a billing like that. Rainboot sets Wave and Cloud up to be sinus-clearingly, mind-warpingly good. And although it’s not so bad, it falls some way short of the standards unhelpfully set by excitable marketing types.
First track, ‘Seafarer’s Lament’, has ambitious and life-changing written all over it. Seth gives us 9 minutes 25 seconds of slow burn, his soulful voice building a long crescendo throughout the entire song. It’s a remarkably confident way to open your first album, and The Whiskey Priest sound is readily identifiable from the first notes, gentle bass scraping in the distance, acoustic strumming in the foreground. The song takes the form of a storm at sea rumbling on the horizon, coming ever, closer. The vocals telling an unhappy love story, which begins calmly: “I dreamed you were a ship of grey sailing the seas my loving way.” However, it’s difficult to pick out the lyrics in their entirety, and not just in this song, as they disappear beneath The Priest’s breathy delivery. This is not always such a loss as, although atmospheric from a distance, when examined too closely have a tendency towards portentousness. The second half of the track mostly involves a repeated chorus of “Oh the head(?) ocean is prophesy, the ocean will not end suffering, the ocean will not let me be.” He means every word of it.
At this point, just one track in, The Whiskey Priest seems to have good tunes and expert instrumentation is already overwhelmed by humourlessness and second-rate lyrics which does not bode well. Indeed, other tracks suffer from the same problems as ‘Seafarer’s Lament’. The title of the more upbeat ‘If a Train Was a Doctor Was a Song’ gives a pretty clear idea of what to expect, and unsurprisingly the lyrics don’t work at all. The first line, “If I was a train I would carry you along”, comes across as a pretty underwhelming offer, more than likely to get a reply along the lines of “But you’re not, I’m taking the car.”
‘Uncalled’ is better, intriguingly ambiguous with an understated melody and lyrics about Jesus and pulling back curtains, although The Priest rather spoils it by running out if ideas and resorting to ‘ah-umm’-ing halfway through.
‘Winter Window’ has a chilly woodwind melody, and a mood reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Winter is Blue’. The song is about being trapped in a relationship, and the guitar, flute and bells summon up just the right love-hate atmosphere. The vocals however, are anything but chilly. The Priest’s voice is cracked and racked, emoting with the tone dial firmly set to ‘heart-rending’. It’s a fine voice, but it doesn’t seem suited to the more delicate and oblique songs, which are potentially the best. Here, it messes up the mood, and quarrels with the backing band.
The album peaks with a set of three songs in the middle. ‘No Man is an Island (But Me)’ possesses a sense of humour, which releases the Priest to sing with abandon. This works much better than when he’s bottling it all up, and trying too hard to make us all feel his pain. And it’s also short, which means it’s genuinely funny and doesn’t overwork its slight but enjoyable concept. The next track, ‘Winter Secret Army Blood’, has an arresting percussion sound, with rim shots that sound as though they’re being drummed out on a school desk and a menacing, distorted melodeon that accompanies The Priest singing “I could kiss you like a curse.” It’s a convincingly heartfelt song, relaxed rather than contrived, and it boasts a good tune. And ‘Wave and Cloud’ has a sampled vocal that loops and clicks throughout, repeating “I see her love” in harmony with crooned lyrics in the background sitting under a finger-picked, guitar figure, trebly and sad.
Elsewhere, the mood remains steadfastly unaltered and the lyrics under whelm. ‘The Way of the Future’ is a particular offender, spouting soft rock nonsense about “Seven sons looking for a mother, seven polacks (?) waiting on a lover, can there be one without another, now there’s seven brides for seven brothers, how a young man keep his ways pure…”). ‘Real Good’ has an unpromising title and repeats it at every opportunity, a readymade soundtrack for adverts we have yet to endure. ‘Careless’ is repetitive and under-developed. And closing track, ‘Love Me Like a Holy War’, has a ridiculous title and turns out to be about two girls from Texas, both of whom want a piece of The Priest. He’s definitely not taking advantage. In fact, the dilemma seems to be causing him a lot of grief and he wants “to know what the pain is for.” Then after ‘hey-hey’-ing ‘la-la’-ing his way through a further 2 minutes 30 seconds of song, he’s gone, doubtless leaving behind a trail of changed lives behind him. This record is both pleasant and annoying, uninspired and touched with flashes of promise. We’ll have to wait a little longer for the stone cold classic.