Brooklyn’s Widowspeak have a way of doing more with less. Their 2011 self-titled debut was a remarkable study in restraint; Molly Hamilton’s languorous voice found the melodic sweet spots while Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar playing was as sparse as the Ennio Morricone soundtracks he so obviously loves. So what’s a minimalist band to do for its second go around? They could strip everything even further, or go for broke and thrown in the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, Widowspeak split the difference and wind up with something that’s pleasant but not as attention-grabbing.
The duo retreated to a barn in upstate New York and worked with Kevin McMahon, a producer who had a large hand in crafting the Walkmen’s early output. That’s a tantalizing partnership; Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere kept Widowspeak’s debut skeletal and earthy, but McMahon was brought on board to conceivably draw out the more sky-reaching aspects of the band’s sound. The team succeeds in a few places, most notably on “Ballad of the Golden Hour.” The song snakes between country-noir, AM radio pop, and a coda as cathartic as a Lindsay Buckingham composition.
Fleetwood Mac seems to be the go-to reference point for Almanac, but it’s hard to match that band’s emotional heft with a singer like Hamilton. Her voice is as rich as velvet and pretty much stays right in that comfort zone, even when she’s providing apocalyptic imagery. The record itself is obsessed with the end times, but the feeling is more numb than depressed or ecstatic. Songs flick by at an unhurried pace, carried off in a cloud of reverb and arpeggios. Gone is the heaviness and sense of danger from their debut, and the distortion is tempered with more ambitious arrangements.
This sonic shift has its high points. “Dyed In The Wool” has the perfect blend of smoky soul and dusty guitar, and it’s here that Hamilton and Thomas’ joint vision bears the most fruit. The two are unleashed on “The Dark Age” and “Devil Knows” where they dance around crashing garage rock. Widowspeak know their chief strength: dreamy, melodic beauty matched with jagged darkness.
Ultimately, though, Almanac becomes a test of how the outfit hits that mark. More often than not, they miss, retreating back instead of charging forward. The production is not the culprit here. Rather, the band seems to be stuck on the edge of their unique past endeavors and what comes next. This kind of paralysis can be compelling, but for a group with a singular vision like Widowspeak, it seems more like a detour than a path-blazing experiment.