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Widowspeak Almanac Review

Album. Released 2013.  

BBC Review

Brooklyn duo turns rural for its second album.

Mike Diver 2013

Widowspeak are city slickers, more accustomed to the urban jungle than the American wilderness. But with second album Almanac the duo’s headed well beyond the suburbs.

Robert Earl Thomas and Molly Hamilton – a guitarist of yawning slides and spidery rhythms; a vocalist sharing similarities with Hope Sandoval – have worked with Swans collaborator Kevin McMahon on a set that sounds every second the product of its recording environment: a 100-year-old barn.

This is instrumentally inviting; something like Beach House becoming obsessed with Neil Young’s more bucolic catalogue entries. But anyone expecting the McMahon connection – he mixed 2012’s acclaimed The Seer (in BBC Music's top albums of said year) – to result in southern gothic tropes might come away disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that Almanac doesn’t tap into a dark side. Hamilton’s lyrics encompass shades of dread – as she wrote, thoughts of the 2012 apocalypse that never was passed through her mind. But doomsday musing is tempered by a familiarly intimate delivery.

Her vocal lines are forever hazy. Alongside the Mazzy Star singer, they may also stir comparisons with Howling Bells’ Juanita Stein. This is no problem – a beautiful voice is always a welcome presence on a record of few stylistic shifts.

Consistently comprised of Thomas’ intricate guitar work, moaning organs, understated percussion and tickled Rhodes, Almanac is methodically second-gear for the most part.

It’s an initially appealing mix, then. But it’s too easy for the listener to tune out – to the sound of passing traffic, a washing machine’s spin cycle, anything that represents a change of pace.

Devil Knows breaks into a mid-tempo stride, but feels overly routine to truly connect. Its stabbing guitar recalls Television’s Marquee Moon, if Tom Verlaine had engineered his band’s breakthrough as the soundtrack to an as-yet-unrealised True Blood.

There’s a spacious quality to Dyed in the Wool and Storm King that’d complement imagery of crackling storms over wide-open horizons. Thomas is undoubtedly a highly skilled musician, with an eager ear for mood-setting sounds.

Pretty though it certainly is, Almanac never truly transcends its set of influences. It’s accomplished, mixing studied nostalgia with current concerns, but not a standout in its field. Which has probably been concreted over by now, anyway.

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