Laren Loveless was playing drums at KDHX's tribute to R.E.M. in late April, bashing the hell out of the kit during a bruising swing at "Bang & Blame" — you had to feel sorry for whomever's drums were being shared on the backline that night. Loveless brings a different kind of power as the lead singer of the Reeling Gilly — he's still keeping time but takes over lead vocal duties in a four-piece band that brings Southern rock swagger and gospel grace into sepia-toned story-songs. The six-song Jake West EP is a bit of Old West noir mixed with classic pop smarts, as if the Beatles had turned "Rocky Raccoon" into a rock opera.
These are dense, sometimes turgid songs — only one clocks in at under five minutes. Opener "Hang Me in the Morning (Break These Chains)" rides a two-chord vamp on top of a far-off wail. It could be a siren, an organ's moan or the Rapture itself. The extended opening track gives Loveless a chance to flex his estimable pipes — at times, he transmits like a young Chris Robinson, with enough country soul to sell these rough and ragged tunes. His is a big, strong voice that rightfully consumes his songs. "Hang Me" serves as an introduction of sorts to the EP's big themes and underlying story, though the next track, "The Ballad of Jake West," gets more to the point via some fine honky-tonk piano from Zach Gorsuch and scorched slide guitar from Rick Poeppel.
The title character is an archetypal rogue, guilty of "seven deadly sins" and caught between redemption and oblivion. If it's not a startlingly original story (or an inventive character name, given the Western setting), the outline is good grist for the mill. The Reeling Gilly thankfully doesn't get too bogged down by the narrative details — there's a story in here if you want to listen for it, but most of the songs contain their own little universes. Closing track "Bootlace," in particular, consummates the program on an elegiac note compliments of a stirring string section. It's enough to make you want to start the record over and hear the story again.