Ben Nichols: The Last Pale Light In the West

By James Calemine

Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian, Ben Nichols’ solo CD ranks as a formidable collection of songs. Recorded at Easley and Ardent Studios in Memphis these seven songs do McCarthy’s novel excellent musical justice.

Ben Nichols’ Memphis band, Lucero, contend as one of the finest bands on the indie scene. The Last Pale Light In the West allows Nichols a chance to showcase his talents in a stripped down—mostly acoustic–manner. Nichols writes, sings and plays acoustic guitar while Rick Steff handles piano/accordion duties and Todd Bean plays pedal steel and electric guitar. Traces of the Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood’s vocal timbre can be heard in Nichols voice, but Ben Nichols is an original.

Each song is dedicated to the main characters of McCarthy’s novel, a brutal and savage tale of hired killers in Texas during 1842. The title track commences the CD with a ominous start…like the sunrise of some wicked day. The second song, dedicated to “The Kid”, a young wanderer from Tennessee that finds himself in the company of ruthless assassins. In this tune, Nichols uses the line from the novel: “Drink up because tonight your soul is required of you…”

The stark musical landscape provides a melodic backdrop to McCarthy’s vivid verbal images. “Davy Brown” tells the tale of a amiable man who must travel with cold-hearted killers to earn money. The guitar riff in this song sounds good as anything Nichols ever played: one of the CDs strongest songs. Bean’s pedal steel accompanied by Nichols acoustic and soulful voice evokes a Friday evening in the saloon vibe in this song.

“Chambers”, who was born in Kentucky went to Mexico to fight a war tells a sad tale of an honest man—a war veteran–who had no business keeping time with these killers, considering he made plans to go back and meet the girl he loved. He never made it. The lyrics…“He was not yet two days out/When Glanton’s naked native scouts/Brought back his empty horse and his brand new gun…”allows the listener to understand this character never makes it out alive. In fact, none of the characters survive the story, except one.

It’s essential to have read the book to totally understand these songs. Having been a Cormac McCarthy fan since 1987, I must say these compositions provide a fantastic soundtrack to the book. “Tobin” reveals a man of the cloth turned to darkness: “I done some preaching back in Texas before the war/Now I hunt heathens cause it pays better than the Lord”. Later the concrete images of the book are conjured in the song: ‘I’ve seen the hoof prints cloven in the stone.”

“Toadvine”, a cherished character in the novel’s gang, behooved Nichols to streamline the character’s moral compass in the lines: “The preacher’s lesson/Is simply Armageddon/The devil knows how to ride/A killer of men/And no way to save them/Hell we all have to die.”

The final track, “The Judge” is an instrumental dedicated to the only survivor of the tale. The Judge acted as a silent force in the gang, and in time the reader understands this character very well may  be the prince of darkness. He survives every attack and even until the end he dispenses his wicked logic upon his cohorts…as perhaps Lucifer himself might. The Last Pale Light In the West ends in a mysterious and dark fashion just like the book. I can’t see where McCarthy wouldn’t be proud…

Read the book. Buy the record.

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