Voice of the plains

Though his powerfully plaintive individual performances are well-known, the reality is that Lucero frontman Ben Nichols is such a force unto himself that a solo release was inevitable. Based on the Western novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, the debut release by the celebrated artist frames an unmistakably intimate perspective with only two accompanists: pianist Rick Steff and guitarist Todd Beene.

Compared to Nichols' soulful but stark solo shows, the setup on this mini-LP — which was partially previewed during the recent Revival Tour with Chuck Ragan and Tim Barry — produces a finished sound. The minimal arrangements are graced with judicious placement that allows each element to breathe, shimmer and fill. It's about as full as you can get without compromising the record's up-close, confessional feel. This is more of a pure country-and-Western affair than Lucero's rugged, punk-fueled country rock, most of that C&W flair coming from the precise bends of Beene's pedal steel.

The terrain is carved by high-plains gallops ("The Kid," "Tobin"), hillbilly stomps ("Davy Brown") and sorrowful midnight musing ("Toadvine," "Chambers"). The twilight balladry of the title track is a stunning peak where mournfulness and majesty meet, the song's simple framework blossoming out of sheer perfection of melody.

With eyes fixed on the horizon, this outing is a significant broadening of style for Nichols. It's a work of maturity that showcases the subtler, more meditative nuances of his vocal delivery, which has developed into a surprisingly supple instrument despite its unmistakable grit. A wonder of power, pathos and heart, Ben Nichols' voice is one of the greatest in alternative country; The Last Pale Light in the West is a gorgeous display of that gift.

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