White Owl Red – Existential Frontiers

San Francisco-based singer-songwriter J. Josef McManus and friends soar as White Owl Red on the McManus-led project’s new album, Existential Frontiers. As its title teases, the album tackles deep questions with music inspired by the Wild West mythos.

The title track sets the pace for McManus and his supporting cast: drummer Kyle Caprista (Chuck Prophet, Megan Slankard) and guitarist Gawain Mathews (Mickey Hart, Ben Lee). It’s a galloping cowpunk number that concedes there’s no Lone Ranger coming through those swinging saloon doors to solve contemporary, grown-up problems. That theme exemplifies a postmodern attitude that doesn’t toss out the Western music baby with the dated cowboy trope bathwater.

Other brainy nods to punked-up country music include the politically-aware “Union Fight Song” and the hard-driving, clever “I’m a Saint.” The latter’s lyrical gems include “I like coffee, and alcohol/ Everyone knows the dead one’s Paul” – a fun nod to one of pop music’s contrived yet intriguing conspiracies.

It’s not just a cowpunk revival, with other standout tracks including the mandolin-driven rocker “Everything But Crying” and the honky-tonk throwback “Take a Good Look.” In each case, the band blends McManus’ talent as a lyricist with disparate sounds from the folk and country playbook.

While the deadheads-who-dig-punk vibe heard on most songs flaunts the trio’s creativity, the best showcases of McManus as a lyricist and singer bring a more traditional folk feel. This can be on such quaint, acoustic numbers as “Breaking Away,” “Good Morning Moonshine” and “Love Her Still.”

White Owl Red
Existential Frontiers