A blue-colored rhythm creeps out from the shadows of a staggering slide guitar and cuts through anything that gets in its path in the title track of Jeffrey Halford & the Healers’ latest album, West Towards South. In “Gallows,” a mischievous melody is broken up by a slothful percussion that is as much an agent of evocation as the lyrics themselves are. “Dead Man’s Hand” spits fire from an acoustic guitar harmony that is as haunted as the American South is, but as gripping as these three songs are, they’re not even a third of what West Towards South has in store for all who pick it up this spring.
While thoroughly steeped in Americana, this record from Halford has a versatile crossover appeal that could entice blues and country fans toward his band through the provocative twang of “Deeper than Hell,” the ache of “Geronimo,” and the stumbling sway of “Three-Quarter Moon.” These songs are studded with subtle country-blues grooves that are fresher than anything I’ve heard out of Nashville recently. Though they’re coupled with an experimental texture in both their string parts as well as the vocals, I think they’ve got just enough swing to appeal to disenfranchised country enthusiasts looking for something surreal to balance out their favorite playlist right now.
There are a few instances in West Towards South where Jeffrey Halford & the Healers toy with rock n’ roll elements, such as in “Deeper Than Hell,” the title track and the ripping “A Town Called Slow.” The countrified lyricism in “A Town Called Snow” finds an almost poppy hook in the chorus that exploits its dynamic prose for all that it’s worth, and in the bar brawler grooving of “Willa Jean,” the Healers sound more like a straightforward folk/rock unit than they do anything else. Jeffrey Halford never flinches amidst all of the stylistic transitions, which is really something when we consider just how many of them there are in West Towards South.
The emotion is raw and intimate in “Three-Quarter Moon,” “The Ballad of Ambrose and Cyrus” and the chilly ballad “Geronimo,” but it never comes across as self-centered or egomaniacal on the part of the band. The story in West Towards South is incredibly operatic on its face, and to some degree, it’s only through the melodic faceting of the words that we’re able to hear it without becoming consumed by the postmodernity of the narrative. It’s obvious to me that Halford and the Healers spent a lot of time ironing out every detail here, and their efforts have produced a really poetic tale that needs to be told all the more in these unfortunate times of fractured patriotism.
Longtime fans of Jeffrey Halford & the Healers will be the ultimate judge, but for what I look for in an Americana album, it’s difficult to top what they’ve created in West Towards South. It’s colorful but unvarnished, decadently arranged but devoid of excesses, and most importantly, it’s a hearty taste of an evolved sound from a band that has grown a lot since their inception. I know that it’s made me want to explore their back-catalogue a bit more than I already had, and I have a feeling that other relative newcomers to the Healers’ music will share my sentiments.