Boise, Idaho, might not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of indie-rock breeding grounds, but Western Daughter aims to change that. Formed in 2015, the band released their debut As The Sun Went Down at the tail-end of the year, a striking seven-track sampler of their personal brand of emo Americana and one overlooked by many. Wild At Heart, a four track acoustic EP, followed, and for a time it seemed that it might be the last we heard of the band – several members had planned to move to Portland, and the band’s future seemed shaky. Luckily, that demise was not to be, and now Western Daughter has released their LP debut on Take This To Heart, a label whose name is perfectly suited to the music showcased on Driftwood Songs.
Several of the tracks here were previously released in acoustic versions, but this album’s reworkings add a new breadth – opener “Skinny Water” becomes a meditation on friendship and temporality illustrated with beautiful guitar tones by guitarists Cameron Brizzee and Taylor Jay, “Exhibition on Main Street” searches for love and permanence among rollicking instrumentation, and most notably, the title track is expanded with percussion that transforms a ditty into a showstopper. Elsewhere, the band further proves their musicality, as on “Busy Busy Busy,” a near-instrumental where bassist Jess Hope shines and the acoustic standout “When You Go out Tonight.” Throughout, Western Daughter is anchored by Taylor Hawkins’s vocals, which equally soar (as on “Skinny Water”) and drop to a caustic ramble reminiscent of Cymbals Eat Guitars’s Joseph D’Agostino (think of “San Francisco” as Western Daughter’s response to Cymbals’ “XR,” a track vocally distinct from any other on the record), and Zachary Sherwood’s percussion, which proves to be the unsung hero of the album. There is not a single track on the record where Sherwood’s drums don’t play a crucial role (save “When You Go Out Tonight”) and it would be hard to imagine the album having the same impact without them.
And what a impact it proves to have. Transience and a resultant craving for stability are central, with Brizzee describing the album as “trying to make sense of life in a continually changing environment.” In “Skinny Water” Hawkins sings of “float[ing] like driftwood, with the currents at our backs,” and this is the image that the tracks pivot around, most notably in the searching for someone to “come and shake me from my lonesome room” in “Pillar of Salt,” a call answered in “Driftwood Songs” where the songs themselves allow the speaker to be shaken out. There is the sense in each of these tracks that it is friendship, love, human connection, experienced through music or otherwise, that will provide the stability desperately craved. The core refrain of “Busy Busy Busy” is “you’re not in control,” and this refrain doesn’t change by the time of its repetition in closer “Control.” What changes is everything around the speaker. Encompassing the best use of backing vocals on the album, “Control” closes with the mantra that “you’re not alone.” The speaker, and all of us, may still be adrift, may still lack control, may be far from home, but, and this is crucial, he is not alone. It is the friends and the love that surround one that provide a remedy for the feeling that one is little more than driftwood – the truth is that we’re all adrift, we’re all feeling the same way, and the only way we’re going to get through it is together. Call it the stability of one hand in another.
On “Exhibition on Main Street,” Hawkins sings “I wrote your name in the wet cement/I felt stupid, yeah I had to admit/but I was trying to create something that would outlive me.” Maybe outlive isn’t the most exact word for what the quintet that comprise Western Daughter create here, although there’s no doubt that this is a stunning debut destined to stick in listener’s heads for some time to come. No, a better word would seem to be transcend. In Driftwood Songs, Western Daughter have made an album that transcends the contribution of each member, illustrating the album’s central thesis. It’s a tough world out there, one that shifts often and without warning, but if we can rely on our friends and the love they give us, as the band clearly does on each other, perhaps we can make something bright enough to scare away the dark. These creations, these driftwood songs – they’re how we cope.