In an interview about her new LP, Molly Hamilton of Widowspeak was asked by her label, Captured Tracks, “How would you describe Almanac to a person who is deaf?” She responded, “Almanac is like moving into a big old house in the woods with sheets covering all the furniture, and then taking all the sheets off.”
From the opening crackles of ambience, sounding somewhere between a campfire and soft rain on fallen leaves, this feeling of woodsy resurrection is tangible. On Almanac, Widowspeak have delicately crafted a steaming broth of rural nostalgia, painfully endemic wanderlust, and a quiet reverence for the spirit of rock n’ roll. What results is a delicious pot of Americana, fit with a pinch of Cat Power, a sprig of Fleetwood Mac, and a lovin’ spoonful of Neil Young. All sounding meant to be — a 21st Century manifest destiny.
The duo has made a record that is chock full of the past while simultaneously feeling timeless, carving out their own space in our American chronology. It is thus fitting that Hamilton’s lyrics confront beginnings and ends, doubts and dread, transience and liminality. On “Ballad of the Gold Hour,” Hamilton’s tender croon wafts over desert locomotion, “we could never stay forever / as you know, we’re destined to go cold / it isn’t over till it’s over / and what’s great is good as gone.” The listener feels comfortable in the music’s familiarity and spaciousness, amidst persistent lyrical challenges to rediscover what it means to search and to find.
Hailing from the foggy hills of Tacoma, Washington and living out the contemporary American dream of moving to Brooklyn to pursue their art, Hamilton and her songwriting partner and lead guitarist, Robert Earl Thomas, have flowered quite delightfully with their sophomore effort. More so than their self-titled 2011 release, Almanac is saturated and grand, evoking the warmth of a summer daydream and the disappointment and confusion of waking up. Fittingly, the album was recorded in a hundred year old barn in the Hudson River Valley during the rich transition between summer and fall. Under the wing of producer Kevin McMahon (Real Estate, Titus Andronicus, Swans), the duo was able to flesh out arrangements and let their music mature.
The dreamy, organic haze that opens Almanac fades in and out like wind as songs pass by. Thomas’ patient guitar hooks emerge from this cloud, alternating between spindly, Western call-and-response licks and the slides and strums of heartland rock n’ roll. Thomas doesn’t hesitate to rip the occasional distorted solo; take the infectious riffing on “The Dark Age.” We are kept driving through jangle and twang with powerful bass tones and drums that rumble like early evening thunder. Tasteful treats of bluegrass instrumentation color the recordings: dulcimer and accordion like a green-screen behind “Thick as Thieves’” drum-less waltz.
What’s most compelling about this listening experience are the webs of melancholy spun by Hamilton’s haunting voice, especially striking when paired with sunny reverb and acoustic hooks. On the first track, “Perennials,” repetitions of “nothing last long / nothing last long enough” float over a bright, anthemic chorus. The listener finds themselves caught in cycles of longing and leaving on “The Dark Age” with intoxicating whispers, “you know nothing stays the same / you gotta keep your story straight / but it’s getting kind of late / don’t know what you’re waiting for … I waited in the dark for you.” Hamilton weaves emotions and memories with just enough detail to leave room for self-reflection.
But there’s a commentary that’s bigger than the personal here. Within the hyperactive and attention-deficit present, Hamilton implies there is beauty in slowness and focus — maybe that’s why she sings so softly, to inspire concentration — “storm king seemed to say / bad weather was on its way / but we’d already stopped listening / and you know nothing / was easier to believe / it’s hard to ask / for what you need.”
The one hiccup in this Almanac is an A-side-heavy delivery. The traditional songwriting structures — almost every song follows a strict ABABCB progression — grow tired. And some of the subtle techniques that make the A-side brilliant are over-extended on the second half. The echo on the lead guitar in “Storm is Willing” feels excessive and the chorus of “Sore Eyes” is drawn-out and boring. However, the purist folk gem “Minnewaska” and poignant closer “Storm King” make the record surely worth flipping.
Curiously, most of the tracks on the album end rather suddenly, and the listener is left eagerly hearing false echoes. The point must be to remind us again that, “Nothing lasts long enough.” Here’s to hoping that Widowspeak does, because Almanac shimmers like gold. [B+] BEN BROCK WILKES
First, in response to this review, I was drawn in immediately by the critic quoting Molly Hamilton, lead vocalist, in the lead. It was a pertinent quote that begs the reader to dig a little deeper.