(CAPTURED TRACKS; 2013)
I like this record! I really like this record! How do I love thee, Widowspeak? Let me count the ways… or, at least, let me tell you why I am so enamored with the duo’s sophomore release, ALMANAC.
The tone is set with the pulsing dynamics of set opener, “Perennials,” and the ethereal vocals of Molly Hamilton, which evoke (rather than mimic) memories of both Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and Stevie Nicks (the latter more for her hippie, gauzy lyrics – and looks – than any vocal similarities). This combination of powerful, noisy music and almost whisper-thin voice grabs you from the outset and doesn’t relent until that final, strangled note, some 4 minutes and 9 seconds later! Molly and band mate Robert Earl Thomas pile on layer after layer of guitar – alongside autoharp and keyboards aplenty – to produce a swirling backdrop for Molly’s voice, with crisp yet understated percussion provided by Kyle Clairmont Jacques. The effect is stunning and we’ve only gotten through the first track.
With “Dyed In the Wool” and its kaleidoscopic walls and sonic washes of guitars giving off a definite psychedelic vibe, Molly’s hypnotic voice has an even more ominous, spooky appeal for me. Sounding like the evil step-sibling of Chris Issak’s “Wicked Game”(which the band covered as a B-side to their GUN SHY single in 2011), the tune is the closest to a standard-issue “rock and roll” song you’ll hear on ALMANAC, though the record does rock from one end to the other.
“The Dark Age” surges and swells, ebbs and flows as it roils toward its inevitable terminus, with a marshal drum track and an unforgettable guitar riff forcing Molly’s voice to ever more urgent levels. “Thick As Thieves” has an old-time country murder-tune vibe, reminiscent of some of Johnny Cash’s best. While not as harsh and uncompromising as Cash, the feeling is nonetheless foreboding.
A short, quiet intro called “Almanac” leads into the album’s first single, a slow building mid-tempo tune called “Ballad of the Golden Hour.” The Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac comparisons are most noticeable here. Thomas’ guitar moves from a Lindsey Buckingham-like percussive, slashing lead to a Peter Green style, no-holds-barred solo as Kyle Clairmont Jacques does an almost perfect Mick Fleetwood imitation behind the drum kit. Of course, over it all, is Hamilton’s lilting vocals, again not matching Nicks’ volume or power, merely evoking memories of her through lyrical content and phrasing.
The word “hypnotic” has continually cropped up in this review, and with good reason. The terminology is again applicable to “Devil Eyes” and its circular rhythmic patterns and a repeating lead guitar part that could be mistaken for a taped loop. The lazy, slow burn of “Sore Eyes” continually threatens to head off into a crazed guitar rave-up, but is reined in at just the right time to build the suspense and tension of the song. If not for the sufferingly dark lyrics, this could be the most cleverly executed ballad I’ve heard in a very long time. The circular quality of “Devil Eyes” returns two songs later with “Locusts.” The instrumentation is, if anything, more restrained here as Hamilton’s vocals weave a claustrophobic melody over it all.
The sounds of crickets and burning wood envelope “Minnewaska,” a dreamy campfire song, with acoustic guitar, harmonium and multi-tracked background vocals and a certain lost-in-the-woods echo throughout. The languid feel of the short “Minnewaska” is again on display – with more success – on the next cut, a lazy, sleepy little ditty called “Spirit Is Willing.” The album closer, “Storm King,” maintains the slow, almost dirge-like quality of the previous tracks, though it possess an ominous, grinding feel throughout. While each of the last three songs are as good as anything else on display here, they may have been better spaced out among the other tunes. Coming, as they did, at the end of the album, just seems to leave the listener feeling down and – maybe – just a little bit crushed by the suffocating effect of the triptych’s sullen pace.
As you can tell from these observations, I really do like this record. And, if the only thing even remotely negative I can find to say about it is a minor sequencing issue (from my standpoint, at least), then I must assume that you will feel like-minded regarding Widowspeak. Spoil yourself with an aural treat… pick up a copy of ALMANAC and enjoy!