Given the fact that we’re constantly bombarded by images on a daily basis, it’s fitting that bands are taking a visual approach to their sound. Contemporary signifiers like “cinematic,” “hazy,” and “shimmering” are thrown around by critics, fans, and the musicians themselves, sometimes ad nauseam. But that visual/auditory melding isn’t always just a cheap copy point. It can hint at an artistic focus that can be rewarding in its own right. Such is the case with Widowspeak, a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Tacoma trio that’s crafted a debut largely through the exploration of mood and tone.
It’s also fitting that Widowspeak comes courtesy of producer Jarvis Taveniere, resident multi-instrumentalist for Woods. The two bands share an intangible, mysterious quality, but whereas Woods’ music comes shrouded in tape hiss, Widowspeak presents itself as minimal and lonely. It helps when you have a singer with a set of pipes like Molly Hamilton. She’s already been likened to fellow dreamweaver Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star fame, and the similarities are striking. But Sandoval always sounded inviting; Hamilton keeps you at arm’s length, a narration for the stark music to build upon.
Credit first must go to Taveniere, who recorded Widowspeak with a beautiful clarity. “Puritan” kicks things off with the album’s musical thesis statement: pop as big and deliberate as a spaghetti western. Guitarist Robert Thomas is incredibly inventive, eschewing straight rhythm playing for winding leads that make every chorus sound huge and foreboding. The simmering energy of songs like “Harsh Realm” or “In The Pines” actually recalls Wye Oak in places, except Widowspeak build the tension and never release it. The effect is frustrating at times, especially when a good explosion is in order, but it always leaves you wanting more—possibly the greatest thing a band can achieve.
Of course, a visual aspect is apparent from the very beginning, suggesting dusty, deserted roads and wide-open spaces. It’s hard not to hear Ennio Morricone’s fingerprints on Thomas’s guitar parts, but at the center of it all is a beating pop heart. “Nightcrawlers” quotes “Apache,” built around the album’s most striking melody. Swooning hooks creep up in slow-dancers like “Gun Shy” and “Hard Times,” and the relatively hard-charging “Fir Coat” boasts a sugary, syncopated hook courtesy of Thomas. Even “Limbs"—an eerie acoustic ballad tipped sharply on the edge of darkness—has a chorus that’s easily recognizable and instantly catchy.
The mixture of pop and mystery is enticing. Everything from the name and the strangely-isolated album art to the songs themselves makes you want to dive in head first. That visual and musical marriage is essential to understanding the minimalism of Widowspeak: it’s just your brain filling in the dots.