Step Right Up: Widowspeak
“As the crow flies, as he walks in lines
He tells the time trailing from our eyes
And if we live until we’re long in the teeth
Think of me and how I used to be”
(—‘Ballad of the Golden Hour’, taken from Widowspeak’s ‘Almanac’, 2013)
Words and Illustration: Craig Carry
Widowspeak are Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas. This year the Brooklyn based duo released their eagerly awaited second album on the ever-reliable Captured Tracks label. ‘Almanac’ was written at the beginning of 2012, twelve months on from their acclaimed self-titled debut LP (also on Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks). The duo’s seemingly effortless ability to create perfectly pitched – at times darkly textured – pop songs is once again in full evidence across ‘Almanac’s twelve tracks. The musical telepathy and unbreakable bond between the pair can easily draw parallels to Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s Baltimore duo Beach House. Molly Hamilton’s ethereal vocals showcase an impressive dynamic range, from the hushed, near dreamy ‘Locusts’ to the intimate ‘Ballad of the Golden Hour’. Throughout, the guitar arrangements by Robert Earl Thomas effortlessly combine with Hamilton’s voice – sometimes playing softly to augment a particular lyric – other times creating a densely layered guitar passage imbued with raw power and great tension. What’s most impressive, though, throughout is the beauty of the lyrics. Lyrically, the album deals a lot with a seemingly end-is-near apocalyptic vision (think Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ or Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’). Themes of fear, isolation, regret and mortality fill the album.
‘Almanac’ was recorded by Kevin McMahon (Swans, Real Estate) in a hundred year old barn in the Hudson River Valley of New York State during last summer and autumn. Thomas would co-produce the album, crafting layers of guitar, Rhodes piano, organ and harmonium. The production and arrangements throughout are a real joy to savour.
On the album sleeve the ‘Almanac’ back-story is neatly outlined:
“You hold in your hands the second album by American rock band Widowspeak, recorded in the fall of twenty-twelve on the cresting wave of apocalyptic mania. This collection of songs is titled Almanac in tribute to those annual publications which have for centuries provided people with useful predictions of weather patterns, lunar and solar movement, astronomical phenomena, and sound advice for the sowing and reaping of crops. Inspired by these tomes, by well-worn idioms, the cyclical nature of the seasons, and by the current climate of fear in the face of impending disaster, Almanac is an album for our changing times.”
Opener ‘Perennials’ (with the sound recording of a crackling fire opening proceedings) sets up the album’s themes of mortality and the temporal nature of things perfectly: “I’m afraid that nothing lasts / Nothing lasts long enough” sings Hamilton over an irresistible guitar line (akin to Real Estate or Tu Fawning) from Thomas; it’s as if he’s trying to reassure Hamilton in her time of need. The song builds gradually (guitars, harmonium, bass and keys) to its multi-layered close. The apocalypse is already in sight. Next up is the more immediate and initially stripped back ‘Dyed in the Wool’, where a classy bass line runs through the song’s sixties guitar lines (like The Byrds), while the song suddenly halts for Hamilton’s eerie words to be heard more clearly: “There wasn’t no harm in him, no harm in him”.
‘The Dark Age’ is an example of the band’s more “rock” sounding songs; the electric guitars are more prominent (as are the bass and drums) but crucially the song never escalates into an extended, pretentious guitar solo. Widowspeak are far too astute for that. Rather, the dynamic range of the arrangements are always the first consideration; at no times are Hamilton’s hushed words lost in the mix – even when a storming guitar line is on the horizon. So, we do get to hear those achingly beautiful lyrics at the songs close: “Keep me in the dark with you / The older world will fall away / But I would stay if you told me to”. The song’s storming outro is sequenced (as always) perfectly alongside the delicate follow-up ‘Thick As Thieves’ (the melody and arrangement recalls The Smiths and Johnny Marr). Hamilton’s voice melds beautifully with the guitar/harpsichord/bass arrangement. The “well-worn” idioms Widowspeak promised us are present (“thick as thieves”, “see the forest for the trees”) as Hamilton’s vocal delivery is heavenly from start to finish (the chorus echoing Glasgow’s finest Camera Obscura).
The near-ambient breezy, guitar-led interlude of ‘Almanac’ brings us to the acoustic-led ‘Ballad of the Golden Hour’ an album highlight, consisting of utterly gorgeous guitar lines and another stunning bass line (think ‘Forever Changes’ era Love, ‘You Set The Scene’, perhaps). The electric guitar sounds here more like Alex Scally (in fact the song would proudly belong on any Beach House record), the highlight of the track is when Molly Hamilton sings “It’s all slowing down” repeatedly when (eventually) the song does in fact “slow down” for the songs quietly spoken outro over a solitary acoustic guitar. Lyrically, ‘Devil Knows’ brings Ryan Adams’s debut ‘Heartbreaker’ to mind (“the devil knows / when you’re high / when you’re low”) and its sonic palette echoes Jana Hunter’s Lower Dens. ‘Sore Eyes’ is a gem reminiscent of ‘Devotion’-era Beach House while the guitar work has shades of Phil Wandscher (Whiskeytown/Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter) as Hamilton sings “The night is young / The night is done / Let me rest my sore eyes” on the song’s chorus backed by a sumptuous piece of slide guitar. Elsewhere, the stunning ‘Minnewaska’ is a fragile lullaby similar to Liz Harris’s softly strummed gems under her Grouper guise.
“We could never stay forever” sings Hamilton on ‘Ballad of the Golden Hour’; on listening to the irresistible ‘Almanac’ I can’t think of a better place to stay forevermore than in Hamilton and Thomas’s trusting company.
‘Almanac’ by Widowspeak is out now on Captured Tracks.