THE WESTERN DEN | THE DEAD TONGUES
Downstairs, All Ages
DOORS: 7:00 PM // SHOW: 8:00 PM
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Friday August 23, 2019
To find a musical soulmate, someone with whom to explore your innermost feelings, unite artistic languages, and craft a shared voice is a daunting, even mysterious, undertaking. Some writers spend years searching and never uncover the other half they seek; for others, a partnership just flicks on like a light. The origin story of the hauntingly beautiful duo The Western Den is wonderfully curious in just this way: Deni Hlavinka, an introspective pianist from small town Virginia, posted a song idea on a college forum for accepted students. Chris West, a bright-eyed guitarist from Bermuda, sent back the song the following day in finished form. Upon meeting in person, they discovered their musical—and personal—bond was eerily close; there was never a discussion of forming a band, never a conscious choice, it just happened, fueled by a sheer desire, a necessity to pursue what felt right.
The act of reaching out in search of a common creative haven—that same force which brought Hlavinka and West together seven years ago—is a theme of ‘A Light Left On’, their forthcoming debut record. A careful labor of love, it emerged over the course of two years as a set of demos, which the pair then tracked meticulously over a six-month span. This restraint stands in stark contrast to their previous releases, two EPs which they hurried to release with the same speed and enthusiasm of Hlavinka and West’s initial long-distance collaboration. The result of their patience this time around is an ornate emotional garden, lovingly cultivated and ready for company. In their songwriting, arrangements, and production choices, the band leaves behind the folk label, which always felt like a safe descriptor yet never quite like home, pushing out into orchestral, ethereal, and chordally complex territory, while preserving their sweeping vocal harmonies, at once lush and modest, unmistakably the foundation of their partnership.
‘A Light Left On’ details a coming-of-age search—for purpose, for an environment that feels authentic. From its inceptive command to “raise it up, give a name / call it close, temporary though all the same”, the album announces its creators’ desire to define themselves within a turbulent landscape of thoughts, to have a light left on somewhere that feels permanent. Absent of that flag-planting resolution, the record offers up the belief that a light is still out there—‘I’m still holding on, still, still I’m holding on’—as if spoken to themselves as a mantra, on repeat, to reassure and encourage.
The Western Den showcases a mature pursuit of beauty that is all their own, and yet they capture the emotional soul-searching that exists in all of us, whether we hide it from the world or share it. In Hlavinka and West’s case, they have chosen to share it, extending their trust in each other to their audience.
The Dead Tongues
Ryan Gustafson wrote these songs during quick spans scattered between various tours of the last two years—as a supporting guitarist for his kindred North Carolina spirits Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil Cook’s Guitarheels and as the leader of his own long-evolving vehicle for a beautifully fractured vision of folk, country, blues, and cosmic American rock, The Dead Tongues. Gustafson’s third and best album under that name, Unsung Passage is a first-person reckoning with the things Gustafson, a chronically peripatetic adventurer, has seen enough to sing about. There are meditations on mortality and devotion (the flute-laced dream “My Other/Little Birdie”), on money and temporality (the banjo trot “The Giver”), and on impermanence and acceptance (the achingly gorgeous “Pale November Dew.”). “When I’m traveling, it’s like walking into these different windows…The people you meet, the way the landscape speaks to you, how a desert is different than a mountain: It has the potential to bring out something you didn’t know was there.” These ten songs are snapshots in time–glimpses at the sorts of emotional upheavals and adjustments we’re all forced to face as we move from day to day and, as in Gustafson’s way, place to place.