(Captured Tracks; 2013)
By Jonathan Wroble | 19 January 2013
Almanac, the sophomore effort from Brooklyn-via-Tacoma’s Widowspeak, makes you wonder just how much longer reviews will have to introduce this winsome little group. Their 2011 self-titled debut, charm as it did ’90s alt-rock enthusiasts and anyone who found in shy lead singer Molly Hamilton a new indie crush, didn’t quite muster staying power beyond a flash of critical acclaim. In the year since, founding member Michael Stasiak left the band, Hamilton started scripting songs about the 2012 apocalypse, and the group set up shop in an antique upstate barn—as congruent a space as possible for its hazy, woodsy, and ethereal vibe—to tweak the instrumentation and altogether scope of its newest material. The result is a whirlwind of a record, tight but decidedly fleshed-out, doting on death but still affirming life, and definitive proof that Widowspeak looks and sounds best in rapturous tones of earth.
Opener “Perennials,” so dreamlike it edges on Enya territory, is an immediate introduction to the fullness across Almanac, its several guitar motifs nestled together like old neighbors and the rest of its fanfare—shimmering organs, contextual nature sounds, rising timpani—washing over the arrangement like organic warmth. Its design is a precedent for the songs to come: it rises out of nothing, builds into a robust midsection and eventually fades to a quiet bedside coda. “Nothing lasts, I’m afraid nothing lasts,” sings Hamilton at the close of the song, just before an acoustic guitar abruptly stops to mimic the lyric. For a singer whose shadowy vocals sometimes cast her in too serious a light, it’s refreshing to hear her so instinctually playful.
Indeed, Hamilton’s soft voice is the hardest nuance to pick out on this record, but also the most rewarding. First single “Ballad of the Golden Hour” pitches her fragile poetry against guitarist Robert Earl Thomas’s deft hands, Thomas playing his leads like a shoegazing Robert Fripp, using them to talk but bashfully, while Hamilton’s coos drift in and out of the mix. The track rises and falls, toggles between major and minor chord structures, starts and ends as a true ballad but in between swells to bluesy psychedelia; it can’t decide what it’s meant to be, and why should it? The fusion of ideas and influences along the way, from Americana to Floyd, is endlessly intriguing, and another hokum coda—Hamilton sings that “it’s all slowing down” as the song literally decelerates—lends it a coy air, open as it is to experimentation. It divulges a new layer with each listen.
One especially welcome layer to Almanac is bassist Pamela Garabano-Coolbaugh, who occupies a space very near the blueprints of these songs but still manages a few breakout moments of her own. On the excellent “Locusts,” a garage take on Eastern pop, she plays as thickly as Les Claypool, on the luau shuffle of “Spirit is Willing” she slinks along like filling out a lounge act, and on “Dyed in the Wool” she assumes a menacing gurgle. At once limber and sturdy, her playing is discernible in a way that the bass on the band’s first record was not—a marked improvement given the importance of low sound to the cryptic aura Widowspeak often creates.
With all this newly-established character, this record is rife with confident gambles that work more often than not. The overall style matches that of Widowspeak, a sort of jangling desert aura with hints of Fleetwood Mac, dream pop, and light grunge, but Almanac is much gutsier and freer than the band’s debut. “Thick As Thieves” is a carnival dirge, with an accordion to boot, that would make sense as the theme music for an overblown mafia villain. “Minnewaska” is an earnest campfire ditty, and the title track, curiously enough, is an instrumental palate cleanser. Some of the references used on multiple songs, like Thomas’ woozy surf motif (like on the doo-wop standard “Sleepwalk”) are perhaps too recurrent and easy, but otherwise the work here is purely ambitious. Improvisational closer “Storm King,” rolling slowly like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” is an otherworldly finale, too short by a mile but all Oz-like faux paranoia while it lasts. It perfectly sums up Almanac’s intricate and flush qualities, and also exposes the childlike lark behind the record: Hamilton’s quaint admission that the world is certainly not ending, but what fun it is to hole up and believe it might. It’s a marvel her band’s ability to craft a sound this wide-eyed while still somehow winking.