True West were the black sheep of the paisley underground set. While their pals were recording major-label records with Sandy Pearlman (the Dream Syndicate), working with Prince (both the Bangles and the Three O'Clock), hanging out with Gene Clark (the Long Ryders), or becoming critical darlings (Green on Red), True West were relegated to a relatively tiny indie label (PVC) and split up before making much of an impression on more than a handful dedicated fans. Atavistic's 2007 release of the band's first two releases (1983's Hollywood Holiday and 1984's Drifters) proves that while True West may have faded into obscurity, their music remains challenging and inspiring, and stands up better today than many of their peers' best efforts. Influenced as much by the sound of mid-'70s N.Y.C. (Television) as by the psychedelic '60s (Pink Floyd, Quicksilver Messenger Service), the group was defined by the intricate and passionate guitar duels between Russ Tolman and Richard McGrath, the unhinged vocals of Gavin Blair, and the incredible amount of drama and mystery in its sound. Hollywood Holiday is a raw document of a band that already sounds fully formed and ready to make a splash. Everything on the record seethes with energy and imagination, but the highlights -- like the melancholy jangle pop of "And Then the Rain," the wild tribal improvisation "I'm Not Here," the very catchy title track, and the awesome "You," which features Tolman and McGrath's mind-reading interplay at its most breathtaking -- are some of the best examples of the American underground of the early '80s you'll ever hear.
After such an impressive debut, the next album was almost sure to be a major letdown. In True West's case, though, there is only change to be found on Drifters, not disappointment. Drifters is a more polished record, made in a real studio with Sandy Pearlman's engineer behind the board (again, they were one step behind their scene-mates). While the sound is cleaner (oh, those cursed mid-'80s drum sounds!) and slightly less immediate than on Hollywood Holiday, it sounds raw and fiery enough to put, say, The Medicine Show to shame. McGrath and Tolman still manage to work up storms of six-string majesty throughout, especially on "What About You," where McGrath channels Tom Verlaine very convincingly, the rampaging "Backroad Bridge Song (What Could I Say)," and the chiming "Morning Light." For the most part, though, the guitars are on the back burner and Blair's vocals and lyrics are moved more to the forefront. He proves himself ready for the spotlight -- his vocals are powerful and well suited to the uptempo songs reminiscent of the first record, like "Look Around" and "At Night They Speak," but also the type of country-influenced rockers ("Morning Light," "Speak Easy") and ballads ("Ain't No Hangman") the band was moving toward. While some critics and fans thought the record played it too safe, any excitement lost in the studio polish is offset by the strength found in the songcraft, arrangements, and performances. It's not as classic a statement as their debut, but it remains a highly listenable artifact of the era.
Added on to the compilation are three tracks the band recorded with Tom Verlaine in late 1983 after the release of Hollywood Holiday. EMI financed the session but passed on signing the band, so the songs were left in the can until the release of the (long out of print) Best Western collection in 1990. They provide a clue as to what a completely stripped-down version of Drifters might have sounded like, and fill in a missing piece of the True West story. They may not be the first band you think of when reminiscing about the paisley underground, but to forget them entirely means missing out on some very good and important music. With this long overdue reissue, you no longer have a valid excuse to overlook True West.