Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett recently took some time off from rock stardom to don a cowboy hat and scratch the country itch that has gone unattended since his last solo album. This time around, he teamed up with Nashville-based producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton). There’s no mystery in the title: West Coast Town overshot Nashville by two-thousand miles and landed somewhere between the beach and a nameless, neon-cloaked honkey-tonk. Typically referred to as the Bakersfield sound, which originated in California in the fifties, this obscure subgenre of country is a louder, more aggressive brand than its East Coast counterparts. Brimming with electrified twang and echoes of vintage surf-rock, West Coast Town has an infectious levity that refuses to yield, even to heartbreak — it’s Merle Haggard with a punk streak and a free-spirited ecstasy connection named “Jenny.”
For his third solo album, Shiflett picks up the well-worn narrative of the simple, tough, working class man who deals with his romantic failures and difficult emotions by steeping them in alcohol. Rife with relationship turmoil, “Sticks and Stones,” “Room 102” and “Cherry” all deal with elements of unrequited love and heartbreak. “Tonight, I’m drinking ‘bout me and you,” he sings, as the endearing, lovelorn, drunk narrator in “Room 102.” In “Cherry,” the line, “there’s no happy ending for us” repeats several times over an upbeat guitar riff. Written by a forty-five year old family man, the songs can feel like a performance piece by someone taking his drawl for a test-drive.
Luckily, authenticity isn’t required for songs like “I’m Still Drunk” to hit the mark and no one can be blamed for indulging in the occasional kitschy drinking song. The title track keeps the album grounded and is undoubtedly the most personal song on the album, delivering brief and intimate glimpses into Shiflett’s childhood in California. In the space of a minute, he transforms from a barefoot child into a young man chasing his first love around an unlit beach at night. When he calls it “paradise,” we’re inclined to believe him. The album rounds out with its only happy love song, and it’s refreshingly genuine despite feeling out of place.
How Shiflett finds time to host a popular Americana podcast, fulfill his roles in two bands and manage a solo career and family life is anyone’s guess. He’s currently touring the West Coast and will be joining up with Foo Fighters later this year for the 2017 Glastonbury Festival. Although West Coast Town treads some familiar ground, it’s worth a listen. A record that so closely replicates a sound otherwise left behind in the dive bars of a much less developed California of yore is unlikely to occur again.