I have this propensity to listen to a lot of dark, brooding music that lets me drift into deep contemplation and ruminations; it was that quality that instantly attracted me to Widowspeak. From my very first listen to the band, the combination of sultry vocals and sensually dark music had me stuck like a dullard on a wire, waiting for more. With the release of their eponymous debut album (9 August 2011), it has become more than obvious that what the band’s moniker refers to is not the “widow’s peak,” but rather the darker “widow speak.” But this is not the kind of dark music that is gloomy, and it is worlds away from the musings of post-punk; this is more akin to the kind of brooding that you slip into on sunny days that makes you feel good in a cathartic way.
What has haunted Widowspeak since I first heard of them (and probably before) is the constant comparison to Mazzy Star, asserted mainly because of Molly Hamilton’s voice similarity to Hope Sandoval’s. (I hate when vocalists are compared on the sound of their voice, as opposed to style; one you are born with and cannot do anything about, the other is choice.) Of course, a comparison to Mazzy Star is not a bad thing, but it is (in my opinion) a wrong and lazy comparison to make; the more apt comparison would be with fellow Brooklyn outfit Elysian Fields. Like Elysian Fields, whether conscious or not, there are plenty of hints of dream pop in the vocal style, while the musical arrangements (especially the guitars) flirt playfully with the vocal arrangements. Meshing up the dream pop with grunge, a pinch of late 60s, and standard indie fare, what Widowspeak has created is a luscious album of music and vocals that do not have to rely on “loudness” or volume, because the visceral and ponder-inducing qualities of the music easily outstrips most of their brethren and contemporaries.
“Widowspeak” opens with “Puritan,” which builds playfully like a classic Jesus and Mary Chain song – though worlds away from that sort of “noise,” the moment that the beat drops, the song takes off with a distinctly different speed and new urgency. Juxtaposing warm resonating and jangly guitars, the song is the perfect peephole into the pop sensibility of the band: play with variant pitches, carried by a strong steady rhythm section, with vocals that act at once as the conduit of lyrics and another layer of arranged music. The poppier “Puritan” gives way to “Harsh Realm.” This is the moment that the band starts its tread into the world of dream pop à la Elysian Fields: a breathy, but not ethereal brand of the genre. Though I have heard many ethereal bands from New York City, it seems no one does this more grounded take on dream pop better than New Yorkers, and Widowspeak is on top of their game here.
“Gun Shy” (starting with soft sounds of birds chirping) is the most cinemagraphic track on the album, which probably led the choice of making the track a single prior to the album release. However, it is not the poppiest song on the album; this would be “Fir Coat.” What makes this song a gem is how the guitar and vocal arrangements seem to be an exercise in frolicking. Their anti-pop moment comes with “Ghost Boy.” This is the darkest track (and, you’ve guessed it, my favorite track) on the album. This is brooding captured in music to perfection: from the sedate, subtle brooding to the manic insistent need to ruminate, the closing track of this album is haunting in a way that the other songs are not. Even at the points of crescendi, the song generates a harrowing feeling because of its sense of resignation.
Widowspeak is one of the posts I should have gotten up sooner! What I ultimately like the most about “Widowspeak” is simply how straightforward it is. It is not minimal, nor is laden with extraneous, unneeded overlays or studio gimmickry. Heartfelt and amazingly crafted, this is the kind of brooding music that anyone can find him/herself fixated on.
2. Harsh Realm
4. In the Pines
6. Gun Shy
7. Hard Times
8. Fir Coat
9. Half Awake
10. Ghost Boy
Keep up with Widowspeak at their MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter.
Here is a live performance of “Gun Shy” from the kexpradio YouTube Channel.