Western Fifth's new release, Stand Like a Thief, subtly rewrites the idea of what it means to be alt-country. The lineage that stretches from Gram Parsons through Uncle Tupelo and on down to Whiskeytown provides a blueprint: reclaim the character and songwriting at the heart of country, dial back the sequins (well, Parsons kept the sequins), sidestep the crush of the Nashville machine, and make good, honest music.
Like any good alt-country band, Western Fifth lace their songs with fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and dusty acoustic guitars. But in the sweep of their dynamics, the way they handle a tune, and especially Ryan Holweger's nasal, J. Mascis-esque whine, they draw more heavily on the alternative side of the equation than most alt-country bands. When it succeeds, as on "Hello, Goodnight," it's almost always because Western Fifth have found a particularly sterling hook on which to hang a song. The melody sways gently in a doleful waltz time, spread across strings, horns, and guitar. The chorus hits a deep, aching, and timeless vein with a simple truism: "People will never stop falling in love/With someone who won't love them back." That would probably have been enough to make a great song, but then it fades tenderly out over the only recourse the lovelorn have: "You can say goodnight."
Western Fifth also approach this level of alchemy on "Wait Until Dark (A Good Time to Shine)" and on the shufflingly ramshackle "I Will Keep You Warm," and where they fail it's usually only by a matter of degrees. In certain places, the downward turn of Holweger's voice keeps the songs grounded where they might soar, and as a whole the record can't quite match its best moments. If they continue to work the seam between alternative and country—where the mandolins and banjos of bluegrass meet those of the Arcade Fire—they might just end up making an entire album worthy of the concept.