With the positive reception of its self-titled debut from 2009 and its unique sound marriage of Southwestern country, blues and rock, Cincinnati’s Mack West established its own sub-genre: Alt-western. The evocative sound immediately caught the ears of national television producers looking for the right music for their shows’ soundtracks. Tracks from Mack West’s debut like Water’s Rising and Devil’s Hide surfaced on History Channel’s “American Pickers,” while Discovery Channel’s “Auction Kings” snatched up the ballad Diamond Rose and the instrumental track Vaquero was used in a promo spot for AMC’s “The Man with No Name Trilogy.” When it came time to write the follow-up, “The Goodnight Trail,” vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Zach Mechlem knew he wanted to build on the successful foundation established while expanding the sound even further. The core of the band (drummer Greg Slone and bassist Will Campbell) returns for Mack West’s second full-length, creating a continuity that keeps the two records from sounding disparate. Mechlem’s songs once again feature Slone’s deceptively intricate and sophisticated drum parts and are held together by Campbell’s beautifully simple but rock-solid bass lines. Lyrically, the subject matter stays true to themes requisite of the genre: love, loss, desperation and regret, all delivered in Mechlem's trademark, bass vocal styling. But helping to add a fresh perspective to “The Goodnight Trail” was the introduction of new members, guitarist (and album co-producer) Steve Wethington and violinist Annette Christianson, whose instrumentation and melodic offerings provide a buoyant counterbalance. The latest additions to Mack West help make “The Goodnight Trail” a more accessible batch of songs — including August Night, Sinners and Angels and Soldier On — which add a new, pop-like feel to the proceedings. “The Goodnight Trail” is more than just a new release; it’s a triumphant next step in the evolution of the band. As much as the first recording put Mack West on the map by integrating seamlessly with national television soundtracks in support, the catchy hooks and newfound, universal appeal evident on “The Goodnight Trail” should help catapult the band to national radio airplay in a new and fitting role as a featured artist.
Zach Mechlem - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Will Campbell - Bass
Greg Slone - Drums, Backing Vocal
Steve Wethington - Electric Guitar
Annette Christianson - Violin
"The Rapture" (single)
"The Goodnight Trail"
Mack West's "The Goodnight Trail"
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When veteran Cincinnati musician Zach Mechlem launched his latest project, Mack West, a few years ag...When veteran Cincinnati musician Zach Mechlem launched his latest project, Mack West, a few years ago, he didn’t just form a new band — he created a new genre. Calling the band’s sound “AltWestern” to describe the dusty, often cinematic quality of its modern American Roots music, Mack West released its self-titled debut two years ago to much acclaim and, given the evocative, visceral nature of the songs, attention from the world of music licensing. Tracks from the album were used on various promo spots and TV shows, including History Channel’s American Pickers.
Going into recording the follow-up, Mechlem and original members Will Campbell (bass) and Greg Slone (drums) bolstered their membership, adding guitarist (and album co-producer) Steve Wethington on guitar and violinist Annette Christianson. While the mood and spirit of the debut is still in tact on the resulting album, The Goodnight Trail, Mack West’s sophomore effort doesn’t exactly expand on the trademark elements (as one might expect with the physical growth from trio to quintet). Instead, the core songwriting is stronger, coming across as more compact and accessible.
Mechlem has always been one of the city’s more underrated songwriters, and The Goodnight Trail shows him in peak form. Despite the refocus on song structure, the musicians still do a great job of imaginatively painting around Mechlem’s timeless poetics, sturdy melodies and low-register croon (often compared to Johnny Cash as a vocalist, on Trail, Mechlem might remind you more of Matt Berninger of Cincy-born/Brooklyn-based Indie Rock stars The National) with flourish and flair.
The album is often lush (thanks, at least partly, to the magnificent violin parts) but usually low-key, which creates an almost hypnotic vibe. Occasionally, tracks bleed into one another indistinctly, creating some same-sameness that might lead impatient listeners to reach for the fast forward button. But, overall, The Goodnight Trail is a gorgeous slice of sublime Indie Roots Rock that rewards repeated listens.
Mipoint Music Festival, Saturday Recap
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I hit Madonna’s on Seventh Street to catch Mack West, a local country/western band. Actually, countr...I hit Madonna’s on Seventh Street to catch Mack West, a local country/western band. Actually, country/western is a bit of a misnomer. They did play music with country chord progressions and melodic lines, but their tone and lyric content replaced any hint of “honkey tonk” swing with deadly seriousness and drama. Dressed all in black, the band rumbled and sliced with solid drums and razor-sharp bass lines. The lead singer’s deep, rich baritone resounded in the low octaves that might have reminded most country fans of Johnny Cash. However, the expression it leant to their songs about empty whiskey bottles and flood waters rising reminded me more of Peter Murphy, minus the Dracula, singing gothic-tinged country. It’s worth mentioning that this group of clearly professional local performers, brutally on beat throughout their set, probably had the best overall sound I heard all night, even with Madonna’s smaller scale and sound system.
- John Crowell
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Multi-instrumentalist Zachary Mechlem's heritage is Eastern European Gypsy. This is indicative of hi...Multi-instrumentalist Zachary Mechlem's heritage is Eastern European Gypsy. This is indicative of his far-flung stylistic leaning, which wanders from India to Spain and lifts sound from all points in between. His latest project, Mack West, has found an unexpected home in the Old American West, saturating both music and subject matter with romantic Cowboy imagery.
This is the culmination of an idea Mechlem has had brewing for a while. His solo set has been creeping in this direction, showcasing the Country-tinged songs he had been producing, some for a soundtrack in the works. His music lends itself to visualization, so it's no surprise that the film medium has influenced him.
"I used to watch a lot of horror movies, and I loved the soundtracks, with all the mystery and swells," he says. Along with a healthy dose of Louis L'Amour books and Spaghetti Westerns, this pushed Mechlem in the direction of narrative songwriting with an Old West theme.
With his cavernous baritone and gothic imagery, comparisons to Johnny Cash are inevitable. "I did some Cash and got great feedback," says Mechlem, "but I didn't want to focus too much on that, especially now that he's passed on."
Mack West is a long way from typical Country music, anyway. Mechlem's classical guitar flair and a rhythm section that subtly hints at Rock give their music a unique and intangible twist. The compositions are also a far cry from the formulaic nature of what passes for Country today. Much more Jazz influenced, Mack West gives grooves and melodies adequate breathing room, and vocals are simply another part of the palette instead of the primary focus.
This structure is in line with Mechlem's first recorded foray into the Old West, 2000's The Haight Gang. A concept album with a strong imprint of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fusion, it relied heavily on music to convey much of the story. Mack West drummer Greg Slone played on several tracks on this "Falafel Western."
Slone was a natural first addition to the new band. His background in Rock drumming and fluid technique are a boon to the project, giving Mechlem's compositions an unexpected goose. Slone's playing provides the ideal mix of strength and creativity, elevating the music by not defaulting to a simple shuffle on every song.
"Country's not something that I listen to, so I like that challenge," says Slone, who has also detoured into Reggae and World Music with Lucky and the Zionites, and is co-founder of the Rock outfit, Bastion. "I like experimenting with different styles."
Slone and Mechlem originally became acquainted when they were hired as tour support for MOTH. Many rhythm sections have found themselves in this whirlwind in recent years, and their stint was particularly eventful (the pair has enough great MOTH stories to fill this entire issue). Beyond providing blackmail fodder, the experience deepened the bond between the two, allowing for effortless creative rapport.
They have played a number of shows as a duo, and audiences have thus far been very receptive. "When we set up, people are expecting Black Keys or White Stripes, then it's this stripped down Country music," says Mechlem. "We get a lot of compliments afterward, which is encouraging."
"Musicians you almost expect to be into it," says Slone of their eclectic mix of soaring songs and gritty storytelling, "but when people that are there to see other bands come up and say how into it they were, that's when you know you're on the right track."
John Distler of Hoodwink has recently been added on bass. No other permanent members are in the cards, but the band is looking forward to adding percussion, lap steel, harmonica, trumpet and other melodic instruments when the songs are recorded. "I can't wait to fill them out," says Mechlem. "But what I like about this is that I know we can get by without it."
One of their secrets is booking themselves with the fantastically varied Americana acts on the local scene. Their Double Deuce Roundup at the Southgate House last month was well attended despite inclement weather, and they play on Saturday at the BarrelHouse as part of the monthly Rivertown Music Club. Proceeds will be donated to the local chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
Mr. Cash would be proud.
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“WESTERN UNION” Calling Mack West a “Country band” can be a little misleading, at least if you subs...“WESTERN UNION”
Calling Mack West a “Country band” can be a little misleading, at least if you subscribe to the contemporary commercial definition. Mack West sounds nothing like Sugarland or Kenny Chesney. While certainly possessing roots in more traditional Country, the band also isn’t your run-of-the-mill Johnny Cash-rewriters. The band calls its sound “Alt-Western,” referring to its unique sonics, which capture a Western/Southwestern vibe and haunting ambiance. The dusky, atmospheric approach has as much (if not more) in common with Western soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and Arizona’s Southwestern Country music specialists Calexico as they do Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.
Frontman Zach Mechlem’s low croon (somewhere between Johnny Cash and Indie band The National’s singer Matt Berninger) delivers time-period lyrics about cowboys, outlaws and gunslingers, but not in a Disneyland-esque way, digging deeper into the psyche of the characters. A slew of local guests help the rhythm section of Greg Slone (drums) and Will Campbell (bass) concoct the big-sky, aural scenery. Like Morricone, these songs instantly conjure cinematic imagery and pay tribute to the Old West without resorting to tired clichés.
- Mike Breen 8/12/09
SINNERS & ANGELS
ALL YOU KNOW
A STRONG WIND
THE GOODNIGHT TRAIL
BREAK THE DEVIL'S HIDE
I'M GONNA RIDE
THE STOLEN PLAINS
BEST I'LL EVER BE
GUN IN MY HAND
BRICK BY BRICK
LO & BEHOLD
There are no upcoming dates at this time.