With the Nov. 1 release of their debut album, Gone West, the Bernemann Brothers Band finally provides their fan base with a set of songs that show how far they’ve come in the past five years.
The band started with a single performance, when musical brothers and veteran musicians Matt (drums) and Ryan (guitar and vocals) Bernemann joined with bassist Rich Wagor to perform the kind of music that they’d grown up loving. Singer and guitarist Ben Schmidt joined soon after, making the band a quartet. The group later added lead guitarist Randall Davis, keyboardist Sean Seaton and Sam Drella as a third vocalist.
Gone West sounds excellent: There’s a clean and crisp finishing touch that allows each snap of the snare to become clear to the ear drum. As songs are passed among the instruments — especially on tracks like “12 Step” — everything stays sharp. This also attests to local genius: The album was engineered at the Magic Barn by Steve McIntosh and Pete Becker; the final tracking, mixing and mastering was completed at Schmidt’s Rescued Rabbit Studio.
The content of the album shows what happens when strong musicians converge to have fun with a shared set of sonic landmarks, described by Schmidt as “classic country, swampy soul and good ol’ fashioned rock and roll.” As fans of the Bernemann Brothers Band’s live performances know, they are less familiar with experimentation than with delivering a solid sense of what sounds familiar. At times, this lets Gone West play like an AM Gold radio station that one might hear in the late night hours, with verse, chorus and bridge moving more or less as one would expect.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of wiggle room within the Great American(a) Songbook, and the Bernemann Brothers Band make the most of it. Some songs, like album opener “Hard Days,” claim territory somewhere between Tom Petty and the Jayhawks, with the pacing of the former and the harmonic sweetness of the latter. The slower ballads, like “Break It Open,” “Rio Grande” or the title track, expose the road-weary wisdom of old country music, highlighting the band’s poetry as well as chops.
The choice of classic subjects for the songs — men’s takes on the desirability of and lamentable absence of the good things in life (explicitly named in the title of track nine as “Guitars, Girls, and Whiskey”) — makes the songs feel familiar in the right ways. The tracks that verge closer to rock than country tend to invite the sort of spontaneous singalong that comes when a crowd catches the cadence of the chorus and quickly joins in.
Like a good set list, the album builds to its culmination. One of my favorite tracks, “12 Step,” allows each of the musicians a chance to shine with a fast-paced tempo that you can anticipate would close a show. The actual last track would function nicely as an encore, after a break, leaving space for a cover. The pacing of the album — released at a time when there are limited options for the kinds of crowds that would do a live performance justice — leads to an odd sort of nostalgia. It is reminiscent of that experience of seeing a live performance, perhaps at the Mill, even as each of the tracks is totally unfamiliar to me.
That is the one solid disadvantage of the album: the clear, bittersweet sense how some of the songs might translate to a live venue. Gone West impossibly conveys a lot of the brilliance of the live experience, even as it exchanges the band’s dynamic verve for precise production.