While setting up for their set, The Broken West bassist Brian Whelan paused for one of those projects that sometimes seems like it can't wait another minute: He thoughtfully pulled the paper backing from a sticker, affixed it to his guitar case and smoothed it out. Then he carried it off the stage and out of the way.
The sticker was for the headlining band, Limbeck, an Orange County outfit advancing their fourth release coming out April 10 on Doghouse Records. Limbeck is a fun live act in the best bar-band tradition. Their showmanship sparkled, and they kept the audience engaged with between-song patter, pouring on the charm. Tucson audiences might visualize a power-pop version of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers.
But Whelan's gesture was bittersweet. The Broken West has left their Southern California music scene for a two-month tour supporting their first full-length release, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On. Living every band's fantasy, they were picked up based on their debut EP by the respected Merge label, home of Arcade Fire, Portastatic and Ladybug Transistor, among many others well known to fans of aggressive pop-power chords.
Limbeck fans might ponder what justice is to be found in the record industry, an exercise in futility if there ever was one. Still, The Broken West's Merge CD, and certainly their Saturday set, offered insights to anyone who cared to be distracted from the music long enough to think about it.
The Broken West plays meticulously crafted, ageless songs, each featuring a chorus to inspire singing along. Their arrangements are strewn with subtle hooks, including tasteful highlights of pretty, three-part harmonies. Then there are the lyrics, well-written, but not intellectual, in which commonplace experiences (trending toward confusion and longing) are translated and transcended by resonant imagery, the more effective for being discriminatingly applied. Nothing is overdone, but each aspect of their music fits together like a tight puzzle part. In short, they're a band; no one ever stands out; everyone is essential.
For all the references to The Beach Boys that turn up in The Broken West reviews, doubtless owing to their California roots, The Broken West's sound transcends regionalism, having as much or more in common with Big Star or the Kinks, or labelmates Teenage Fan Club. If there is justice in the music industry, they're on the road for good.