There's nothing left of Jack Burnside's English accent. But what you will hear from the dashing, erstwhile Londoner — who moved to Los Angeles when he was 8 — is an occasional stutter, mid-sentence or in response to a question, as his lips issue a series of record-skips and he struggles to form a sound that's quite literally on the tip of his tongue.
What's astounding is that someone whose speaking voice is so affected can unleash vocals that are so affecting.
The grace and cadence with which Burnside delivers the lines “Slow settle backwards / morning will overtake night / before too long” are sublime. The song, “Gave Away,” is a standout on Glacial, the debut record of Burnside's current project Western Lows. It's a track that deserves placement in, say, the pivotal scene linking the second and third acts of an emotive indie film. And like much of Glacial, “Gave Away”'s potency grows out of its layered sonic texture — including shoegaze-y aspects of My Bloody Valentine. They merge with more soaring arrangements of The National, but it all hinges on Burnside's vocal delivery.
Burnside is 32, and his first ever live performance was a two-song set during an open mic night at the long-gone-and-mostly-forgotten Coconut Teazer venue in West Hollywood 12 years ago. “I'm sure it was bad, but it was as good as I was capable of, and it made me realize that if I could do that, I could move on to the next thing. Plus it was clear that I was a better songwriter than a guitar player, so if I was ever gonna be in a band, I was going to have to sing.”
In his 20s, Burnside sang and played guitar in a series of bands, most notably spending a few years with the L.A.-based noise pop outfit Mezzanine Owls. In 2011, he started writing this current batch of material. He describes the process as “just a totally solitary experience,” a departure from the more collaborative approach with the Owls and previous bands.
Eventually, he assembled what was starting to feel like a critical mass of demos, and in October, he bumped into pal Andy Lemaster, who's produced and recorded with just about everyone on Saddle Creek, including his own band Now It's Overhead. They met at a Bright Eyes show — LeMaster was playing bass — and Burnside handed him the demo.
“I thought maybe we had enough for an EP,” says Burnside. “But Andy said it was really good, that there was enough for an LP. So I said, if Andy's into it, then let's make a fucking record.”
Next they convened in Athens, Georgia, at LeMaster's Chase Park Transduction studio, for about six weeks of work between February and May of 2012. With the exception of drums by Jeremy Wheatley (Crooked Fingers) and Clay Leverett (Bright Eyes), Burnside and Lemaster played every note.
“Although I wrote it alone, this album was never going to be just like me on the guitar,” says Burnside, who knew he wanted to keep these songs out of singer-songwriter purgatory before he ever knew what he'd call his band (or who his band mates would be). “That's not the kind of project it is. That's not how I wanted to perform these songs. I wanted to create sonic textures, something cinematic, with a bunch of layers, something that almost exists in a physical place.”
From the opening notes of “Grapevine,” wherein Burnside sings “The grapevine is tied around my throat / this high tide, a trail gone cold,” we enter into a place of gloaming. But amid the recurring themes of ice and isolation — it's called Glacial, after all — there's something warm to stay with us: Burnside's voice. Sometimes whispering, often measured, but always taking us precisely where we ought to go.
Western Lows are Burnside, Julien Bellin, and Michael Orendy. The trio will play a release party for Glacial (released on JAXART) at The Echo tonight. A European release of Glacial will follow in September.