opinion byMATTHEW M.F. MILLER
When Widowspeak released their second full-length album, Almanac, in early 2013, the band looked up from their shoegazing past – a home-recording, low-fi origin story – to gaze toward a structured, cleaner horizon that more closely aligned their sound with Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star. The streamlining was due in part to the losses of founding drummer Michael Stasiak and bassist Pamela Garabano-Coolbaugh and in part to the keen production ear of Kevin McMahon (Swans, Real Estate), who kept the core in tact while rightly emphasizing the 70s folksiness and Fleetwood Mac undercurrents.
Almanac certainly lived up to its name – it was a living, breathing, optimistic forecast for the year ahead. As evidenced by The Swamps, the band’s new blues-ier, countrified 6-song EP, Widowspeak is forecasting a steamier, southern-gothic tinged future.
Lead singer Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earl Thomas have referred to the EP as a bridge between their past and a new album slated for release in 2014, and the duo waste no time dimming the lights and turning the dial to melancholia . Leadoff track “Theme From The Swamps” is a delicate, echo-y song layered with acoustic strum, loose drumming and a Peter Buck style mandolin that radiates sultry heat. Hamilton wordlessly vocalizes and the ambient noise builds to climax only to drop off without warning, leading right into “Smoke and Mirrors”, a barebones, mid-tempo rocker with another wordless chorus that relies heavily on melody – a lovely one at that – this time accentuated by driving hand percussion.
“Calico” feels straight out of the Tarantino universe, a spaghetti western soundtrack to a decaying relationship that captures the swampy, spooky feeling of losing the one you love and the home you’ve built. The whole affair is a bit haunting, but remains lively. “Brass Bed” begins as a She & Him style two-stepper, but when paired with Hamilton’s wry delivery and the cutting lyric, (“Baby can we play dead, laying in our brass bed”) the results eschew cutesy in favor of dark and mysterious. “True Believer” is a pretty albeit half-finished song that goes nowhere, and keeps going there for nearly five minutes.
Overall, the songs’ structures could use some tightening up. Not every cut needs a grand chorus, but every now and then these songs feel like taking a walk without a destination and, by the end, they don’t stand apart from the whole. Lyrically the album lags a bit, and too many vocalizations in place of actual sung words begins to feel like perhaps Hamilton wasn’t sure what to say.
What truly works is the band’s commitment to the skeletal framework of their music, Thomas’ authoritative picking coupled with Hamilton’s lilting voice, a sultry whisper that conveys desolation and wistfulness, both of which play major roles in many of these songs. Foundational elements of the music feel out-of-time, but they never feel forced and never become a trite 70s and 90s pastiche because Widowspeak continue to abide by the addition-by-subtraction rule: they’ve added new styles to their sound without layering on more sounds. If Widowspeak were a stylish outfit, every album and EP in their catalogue has been an accessory that enhances their overall look without changing what’s working. It’s not hard to imagine that come 2014, their style won’t need any more flourishes. [B]