Smile Politely

Review: Jet W. Lee’s Western Nightmare

I can’t listen to Western Nightmare at work. I’ve tried, three times. Three times I put the album on, headphones in, while prepping DNA samples and feeding cells. Three times I caught myself nodding along, rocking my heels in rhythm, staring absentmindedly at the tubes in my hands. Three times I found myself drawn into the music. After an undergrad asked me if I was okay, I acquiesced.

Western Nightmare just doesn’t allow for a passive listening experience. It refuses to blend into the backdrop of your day. Instead, it pulls you in with rock that is deceptively rhythmic and songwriting that is surprisingly heartfelt. Western Nightmare is Urbana-born, Chicago-dwelling Jet W. Lee’s second album, and it is a knot of heartache and personal anguish lightened by its alt-rock exterior. It’s a fun album, an album with staying power, an album that makes you want to tap your feet and nod your head along, and yet there is an undeniable struggle being played out within each song that makes it that much more powerful.

Jet W. Lee is comprised of Jesse W. Johnson on guitar and lead vocals, Patrick Mangan on drums and supporting vocals, and Pierre Achille on bass. While Johnson does most of the songwriting, the individual parts and end product is truly a result of the interplay between the band’s members, and I was excited to hear how the addition of Achille since Jet W. Lee’s first LP release had changed their sound. I expected it to be lively. What I did not expect was for it to be wrenching. With Western Nightmare, Jet W. Lee tackle themes that are universal without being bland. They write about betrayal, loss, and the agony of growing older in a way that feels personal, but still invites you to project your own doubts and fears into their music. We have spent a week together, and I’ll admit it: I’m attached.

The album opens with soft, plaintive plucks on the guitar, followed by a union of voices that reads as an anthem to the crossover between youth and adulthood, to that era of life where we futilely hold on to the past while we fumble with the present. This first track, “No Hell on Earth,” builds bare drumsticks into the full rhythm of cymbals and bass, while lone vocals careen into loud crooning. Seamlessly, it moves into “World of Blur,” repeating rhythms from the opener, lyrics mimicking the confusion and frustration evident in “No Hell on Earth.”

“Gas on the Grave” takes a more aggressive tone, with squealing guitar and crashing drums underscored by a heavy rock beat. It reveals a darkness to Western Nightmare that will reappear throughout the album, an ominous tone bolstered by Jesse W. Johnson’s threatening vocals and low timbre. There’s not much lightness to be had on Western Nightmare, and its genuine anguish and struggle are what make it such a compelling listen.

Next, “Down for the Bounty” begins with a patient bass beat, which is joined by simple repetitions of electric guitar and drums, coloring a story of loss and betrayal that is both far-fetched in its details and universal in its agony: “Nothing means so much / as when it all is lost, but you know / these things weren’t made to last forever.”

Midway through, we hit the longest and darkest song on the album, “Forty Below,” the story of a relationship turned violent, with man and nature uniting to become the enemy. It is here that the melodic punk rock influence of Hüsker Dü is most apparent. With gritty guitars blending into Johnson’s intensely focused voice, Jet W. Lee builds a landscape that is dark, looming, and icily closing in.

“Children’s Choke” moves forward with a raucous punk energy from start to finish, frenzied guitars racing over rolling drumbeats. It’s a brief melodic punk piece ending with a frantic guitar solo that rolls right into “Hate to Hold Hands,” the first glimpse of something hopeful and light on the album.

The final two songs, “Ghost of a Child” and “Memory Banks of Blue,” are my favorites of the album. “Ghost of a Child” is a thoughtful, dynamic song, where moments of delicate drumbeats and lone notes are overtaken by crashing, roaring guitars. It’s a song about fear and uncertainty, and it returns to the antithesis introduced at the beginning of the album: “From the man with pride / to the child inside / how long til I slip?”

I love a gentle finish, and “Memory Banks of Blue” is a clear-eyed send-off after the heavy electrics of the last few songs. It opens with simple acoustic guitar and Johnson’s lucid voice. Halfway through, the drums, bass, and electric guitar come in. Again, Johnson’s voice is joined by drummer Patrick Mangan’s, and their vocals meld beautifully, changing the conflicted call of “No Hell on Earth” into something hopeful.

Jet W. Lee often relies on simple rhyme patterns and song structure to tell their story, and the result is an album that seems familiar upon first listen, but doesn’t sound tired after two dozen plays. If you’ve ever listened to Built to Spill’s The Normal Years, then you know the sound of a band growing. I hear this shift in Western Nightmare — youth’s lack of restraint mixed with a professionalism and instrumental ease that suggests more to come. My prediction: with album number three, Jet W. Lee will be all grown up. We’ll still love their sound, we’ll admire their skill, but we won’t stop yearning for the anguish of this album.

Lest I convince you that Western Nightmare is an album for the emotionally distraught, it is not.  It’s good, solid rock, it’s nearly entirely upbeat, and it’s a pleasant listen. But watch out — it will grab hold.

Catch the full album, start-to-finish, along with two special covers, tomorrow at Mike ‘N Molly’s.  The show starts at 9 p.m., and for $5 you can catch The Palace Flophouse and The Rutabega before Jet W. Lee take the stage. They’ll be selling their new album at a discounted price, and have promised a full visual performance for those in attendance, including costumes and set decorations that you won’t see at their usual shows. They’ll be joined by The Palace Flophouse’s Bradley Bergstrand onstage to add an additional guitar to the mix for the album release, and will then be headed around the country for the rest of the year touring in support of their album. Not to worry, though — they’ll be back on September 29th to play Mike ‘N Molly’s as part of the Pygmalion Music Festival.

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