Classic rock, as it has come down to us from decades of radio play, is less a defined genre than a no-worries vibe, an invitation to blissfully relive past glories real or imagined. Wand frontman Cory Hanson’s third solo album may sound at first like a bid to join that tradition—Neil Young, the Allman Brothers, and Thin Lizzy are just a few of the FM-radio warhorses that his playing and singing bring to mind—but Western Cum isn’t really a classic-rock album. (For one thing, that NSFW title would probably get your local Morning Zoo crew fired for saying it on air.) While the record bears all the guitar-charged euphoria and carefree spirit of a ’70s rock staple, Hanson’s absurdist lyrical vignettes and counterintuitive arrangements don’t exactly induce a peaceful, easy feeling. Western Cum is a perfect road-trip album, but it’s one that encourages sudden accelerations, sharp left turns, and the occasional swerve into the ditch.
Compared to the dazed Americana travelogs of Hanson’s previous solo outing, Pale Horse Rider, Western Cum is more flagrant in its pursuit of pleasure, making its high-voltage riffs and hair-raising solos the featured attraction of every track. For a genre founded on a premise of anti-virtuosity, indie rock has nonetheless produced its share of Guitar World-worthy string-benders over the past 40 years, and Western Cum constitutes Hanson’s induction to that fretboard fraternity. But where J Mascis or Doug Martsch or Jim James might use a squealing solo to wring out extra pathos from their crestfallen tunes, Hanson likes to let ’er rip for a more basic reason: because it’s fun as fuck. He layers leads upon leads as if he were drizzling syrup on his breakfast bacon, gleefully gorging himself on the gluttony of it all.
Where guitar riffs often function as a preamble to the vocal melody, Hanson’s turns at the mic feel like mere warm-up exercises for his guitar solos, which serve as his off-ramps into alternate dimensions and altered states. His effects-laden excursions practically function as stand-alone mini-songs within the songs: He spends the first half of “Wings” singing along to his restless noodling, as if his guitar were his backing vocalist, before putting on an extended clinic in the unsung art of fusing Southern rock guitar harmonics with proggy mathematics. The whiplashing “Persuasion Architecture” is part Ace of Spades thrasher, part After the Gold Rush reverie, finding common ground between those extremes in a puddle of gooey arpeggios. And while “Horsebait Sabotage” initially busts out the boogie like a Texan T. Rex, it lands somewhere a million miles away, floating off in a rippling infinity pool of new-age textures.
But for all the guitar heroism on display, Hanson maintains a humble, soft-spoken presence as a singer—so much so, you may not initially notice all the strange shit he’s singing about. He’s got the gentle demeanor of a kindergarten circle-time storybook reader and the mind of a cubist poet, framing everyday scenes in wondrous terms (“Housefly” could be the most heroic song you’ll ever hear about about swatting a household pest), or infusing fragmented folk tales with contemporary plot twists. The seafaring “Ghost Ship” could easily pass for some bygone Lauren Canyon country-rock ballad, at least until you get to the line about the guy smuggling cocaine by taping it under his junk; the pedal-steel-smeared “Twins” has the timeless feel of a Gram Parsons cosmic-cowboy odyssey, yet its existential musings revolve around a shout-out to the namesake Schwarzenegger/DeVito flick. But rather than disrupt the album’s mood, those sort of oddball lines enhance its absorbing sense of surreality. Hanson blurs the line between reality and dreaming, and fact and fable, like a documentarian filming a fantasy feature.
Once you spend enough time seeing the world through Hanson’s looking glass, Western Cum seems less like a crass joke of an album title and more like an artisanal spin on the crude language so often applied to displays of six-string excess (cock-rock, etc.)—a reflection of Hanson’s sincere attempt at elevating the rusted-out gold sounds of yesteryear into something artfully modern. If there was ever a song to redeem the art of the guitar solo in this day and age, it’s Western Cum’s 10-minute climax, “Driving Through Heaven,” an ecstatic open-road anthem on which Hanson outruns killer hitchhikers, storm clouds, and wildfire blazes before achieving liftoff in a sustained, cyclonic surge of majestic shredding. It’s Hanson’s “Free Bird” and “Marquee Moon” and “Real Emotional Trash” and “Let’s Call It Love” all rolled into one, a song that not only makes you think epic guitar solos belong back in fashion, but that they could damn well save the world, too. Classic rock is a genre that’s endured through its mythology. With Western Cum, Cory Hanson gives us some new myths to believe in.
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