On their 2011 eponymous debut, Brooklyn’s Widowspeak turned heads and captured hearts with a musty take on shoegaze and dream pop, one that hinged on Molly Hamilton’s often beguiling and usually beautiful vocal recalling Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. Given plenty of space to float in the songs, like motes of dust in sunlight in a forgotten room, its greatest recommendation was that it transcended any possible derivative nature to find its own character. Backed by songs of quiet distinction – not without their more abrasive moments – it was clear the band had the nous to of make the most of bare means.
For the follow up, it couldn’t be clearer that Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earl Thomas, who completes the duo, are instead heading outdoors, resolutely and ambitiously. The cover has them resplendent in archetypal Brooklynite garb: a natty brown waistcoat and trouser combo for sir, a perfectly shabby chic dress for madam – posing under foliage next to a waterfall, presumably cast adrift in great American frontier (but clearly not too far from an Urban Outfitters). As a result, the record is unashamedly widescreen, initial motives writ large – if they could conjure up real substance from gossamer ideas, surely they’d really deliver with more hefty raw materials?
Well, Almanac is certainly solid enough but ends up as being a qualified success – always an effortless listen and pleasant diversion, but rarely lighting a fire under the listener. This is despite it having a newly found, almost headstrong dynamism at times. Dyed In The Wool and The Dark Age both tumble along with a new, yet curiously listless charm, bolstered by bright and forthright guitar work, albeit with essentially interchangeable core ideas. Ballad of the Golden Hour is more subtle, a touch more restraint allowing a lovely melody to blossom, the song like Cults on a rural ramble. Perennials encompasses the changes perfectly – a delicate flicker of an ambient crackle, like dust on vinyl, opening the door to a bright, sun-dappled stroll, robust acoustic strumming the forest floor for airy and chiming Fleet Foxes lead guitar which even, at its height, briefly builds to a headswim of Sigur Rós like noise. It rises and falls at the right times, Hamilton sighing and cooing in tandem.
Yet therein lies the problem. Ambition here often comes at the expense of Widowspeak’s greatest strength – Hamilton’s voice – which is crowded by the bolder arrangements, overpowering her presence and subtlety. Double tracking her vocal is an attempt to offset the damage, but this strips it of its character as much as it tries to boost it. Lyrics are then masked, the songs not naturally inviting the close attention they probably merit, their pace undercut. The arrangements don’t help, with song dynamics which are initially effective quickly becoming repetitive and, in keeping them for the duration of the LP largely unaltered, it culminates in two fairly lame closing songs.
That said, the moments of invention hopefully herald an interesting future as the new scope is lugubriously chewed over, mostly in the record’s second half. Thick As Thieves comes across as a sinister sea shanty with its wheezing accordion, while Sore Eyes has a real cinematic feel for a minor keyed strum with a reversed, skittering sample and wood block – background details made important again – that give it a more uncertain character. In falling away in a delicious bridge, the song creates real room for Hamilton to revel in, and it’s very welcome. Minnewaska is arguably best of all. Superficially a midnight fireside song between lovers escaping to the country, replete with background cricket noise, it warps to an uncertain end via a creepy looming backing vocal and lyric “it’s ok to be afraid / I know where to go where we can be alone” to more suit a victim/murderer dynamic. It’s somehow both cute and unsettling, and all the more compelling for it.
In ramping up their scope – a laudable and understandable idea really for a second LP – Widowspeak instead often lose sight of their strengths, too often not seeing the wood for the trees. Indeed, it’s when they’re seemingly less sure of where they are that Almanac excels. Let’s hope that next time they venture out, they leave the map at home.