As slyly engaging and unsettling as a song entitled “Western Medicine Blues” rightfully should be, this one is three minutes and forty-one seconds of quirky goodness. One of my longstanding sweet spots is music that straddles that elusive line between odd and familiar and that’s definitely part of what’s happening here. The oddness comes in a variety of flavors, from Tim Howard’s quavery voice, which commands through its unwillingness to command, to lyrics which weave in and out of comprehensibility, to a brisk, sparse arrangement that welcomes a subtle variety of sounds into the mix, from stray guitar blips and bass runs to piano fills and what might even be a saxophone blurt or two. And, one of my favorite offbeat moments: the stopping point we hear at 1:59 and the offbeat, almost church-like instrumental break that follows.
All of this works, mind you, based on the underlying strength of the song itself. “Western Medicine Blues” takes the classic rock’n’roll backbeat and unpacks it into a swift, slinky skeleton of its usual self. There is a verse, a chorus that you don’t realize is the chorus until it repeats later, and then an ear-grabbing middle section, with lyrics that open incisively (“Everything I’ve ever done/Is out of fear of medicine”) and lead quickly down a series of elliptical pathways, ending with the music and lyrics all but deconstructing. Cue then the church-like instrumental break, then the chorus comes back, and this curious but compelling song either completely wins you over or you’re just not listening.
Soltero is the performing name used by Tim Howard. He’s been featured here three previous times, starting all the way back in 2004, and reappearing in four-year intervals after that. “Western Medicine Blues” is the title track from the new Soltero album, which was released in November. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it via Bandcamp for whatever price you’d like to pay.
In his non-musical life, Howard is the executive producer and editor of the very smart and appealing podcast Reply All. He is based in Brooklyn.