The Western Civilization - Fractions of a Whole (Album Review)

Labelling themselves as "Good ole' fashion indie rock from Austin, Texas", Reggie O’Farrell and Rachel Hansbro are the two musicians that make up The Western Civilization, a sweet and thoughtful duo whose songs can challenge you philosophically while brightening your day with up-tempo melodies, beguiling instrumentation, and memorable one-liners. A whopping 17 years stand between the group's debut album Letters of Resignation and their recently released sophomore album Fractions of a Whole. In that time, the duo have matured musically while holding onto their unguarded style of writing, and Fractions of a Whole is a dense and oscillating record that volleys between up-close-and-personal songwriting and trippy walls of sound. 

The opening track, "Noctambulism", builds with intensity, using simple piano lines, rising percussion, familiar melodies and picturesque lyrics. While this track hints at epicness, it never quite reaches a crescendo, opting instead for the more understated, preparing the listener for a marathon as opposed to a sprint. The more subdued "Stitches" plays with a dichotomy of nonchalant indifference and sunny tweedom, and the brilliantly titled "Bible Verses for Kids" folds in eccentric rhythms and sing-along vocalises among its Arcade-Fireesque spiritually themed grandeur, replete with a snarky attitude to pepper its middle-of-the-road disposition. 

Album highlight "She's by the Sea" does the best job of showcasing the Austinites' knack for penning straightforward tunes then wrapping them in layers of textural elements like feedback to obscure the otherwise pop-influenced lyrics ("You gave up on me, and I believe you had the right, I don’t know where you went to but, I miss you tonight"). This results in a lucid emotion shrouded in a crepuscular veil of cool; like a soppy love letter enveloped in tabs of LSD.

There's no time on the album that O'Farrell sounds more like Conor Oberst than on "If You're Lucky", a peculiar cut that pits gimmicky production against its environmental message. A harbinger of end times that, perhaps, in the end, has just a bit too much going on. "Fool" operates around a familiar melody and snappy drums, and its "sad music for sad people" vibe is made awesome by some incendiary guitar work.  

The ultra-relatable "My Mess" is one of the more thematically digestible tunes on the record, with its acoustic-led balladry coloured with neat piano and drums. Dealing with themes of depersonalization, the song's inspired lyrics see the writer question reality and ruminate on the difficulties of being lost in philosophy while the people around them have their heads firmly screwed on ("your logic tries to comprehend my mess"). 

Elsewhere, the pulsive "The Snake and The Saint" matches its musical vehemence with more religious imagery. "The Ocean's on the Rise" continues with mentions of inevitable environmental disasters, its tumbleweed folk character powered by politically charged quips ("All those Bushes, Dicks, and Cheyneys... they pulled the wool over our eyes"). It's a tad self-righteous, sure, but it's also rather harmless, easy on the ear, and somehow the least offensive track on the collection. The closing track "Proselytism" winds things down with a camp-fire intimacy, Hansbro barely singing her heartwrenching lines, pushing them out in an almost-whisper, before the tepid waters of guitar, piano, and ambiences swirl around and push out towards some distant horizon.  

While there might not be a hit single on this record, one capable of breaking through the wall of ambiguity The Western Civilization has worked hard to establish, there is an appreciation of songwriting traditions hiding behind the elaborate productions. Had these songs been stripped down to their core, they may have been stickier, yet they would have been missing the idiosyncratic flare that accompanies the predictably unpredictable nature of forward-thinking indie folk. More than anything, there is a sense of desperation permeating this finely produced album. However, the artists don't sound desperate to impress, but rather, to express, landing on melody-forward songs that pique the spirit as they deliver their truths; a kind of genuity that's nigh impossible to fake.