Dean Wareham and Cheval Sombre bill their new collaboration as “western dream-pop,” which isn’t such a strange pairing: western-style songs have always had a dreamlike air. From Sons of the Pioneers through Hollywood’s singing cowboys to Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash, tunes like “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” “El Paso” or “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” offer a romanticized vision of the Old West, with dual emphases on manly self-reliance and tender longing for home. Wareham and Sombre (the project of Chris Porpora) co-opt the sentiments and add hazy musical arrangements to match on 10 songs drawn from the western-music canon and more contemporary artists, including Bob Dylan, the Magnetic Fields and Townes Van Zandt.
Wareham has considerable dream-pop credentials, having played in Galaxie 500 and Luna—touchstone bands for fans of atmospheric guitars and quavering vocals. Porpora is less well known, but Wareham has played on his albums and released Cheval Sombre’s self-titled 2009 LP on his own Double Feature label. They make a potent duo, giving more defined musical structures to the sometimes amorphous nature of dream-pop, and creasing the songs with a taut edge. The twosome tilts the balance more toward pop, but there’s still enough western here to make these songs sound like modern updates of what had been a bygone musical tradition.
The musical arrangements play up the sense of dreamy fantasy. Backed Britta Phillips of Luna and Dean & Britta, Anthony LaMarca from the War on Drugs and Will Halsey of Sugarcandy Mountain, Warham and Sombre employ chiming guitar arpeggios, soft-focus wordless backing vocals and understated ornamentation. Tightly coiled tremolo guitar and whistling add atmosphere to “Wand’rin’ Star,” written for the stage (and, later, movie) musical Paint Your Wagon. There’s an eerie keening from what sounds like a singing saw on another movie song, “My Rifle, My Pony and Me,” which Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson performed in Rio Bravo in 1959. Steel guitar underpins the lonesome air of Van Zandt’s “Greensboro Woman,” and muted piano chords and quiet acoustic guitar give the Magnetic Fields’ “Grand Canyon” a stately feel.
Wareham and Sombre take turns singing lead, a curtain of reverb adding depth to their vocals. That hypnotic, from-a-distance sensibility accentuates trebly electric guitars and booming tom-toms on Robbins’ “A Bend in the River,” and lends an otherworldly feel to the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger,” which mixes in majestic ’60s-style folk-rock vocal harmonies worthy of the Mamas & the Papas. Wareham sings that one, his voice still clear and appealingly plaintive. Sombre’s vocals have a darker cast, and he tends to murmur as if he’s sharing deep secrets, especially on Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and Blaze Foley’s wistful “If Only I Could Fly,” which Merle Haggard recorded on his 2000 album by the same name.
A dream-pop icon teaming up with a protégé on an album of western(-ish) songs is probably not a collaboration anyone was looking for, but if Dean Wareham vs. Cheval Sombre was unexpected, it also turns out to be unexpectedly satisfying. They sing well together, they picked interesting songs to interpret and they perform them in a way that is reverent without feeling too earnest. Sounds like a dream.