When Seattle art-punks Pretty Girls Make Graves disbanded in 2007, few would have predicted the direction bassist and co-vocalist Derek Fudesco would take with his next project. Having previously done time in garage racketeers Murder City Devils, and with noisy rockers like Thee Oh Sees and the Black Lips breaking through, the smart money would have been on more of the same; what actually emerged with the Cave Singers’ debut album Invitation Songs was a peek at the flip-side of the coin. An almost exclusively acoustic affair, full of dark but uplifting old-time folk, that record found singer Pete Quirke weaving sweet vocal melodies around Fudesco’s snaking guitar lines, taking a similar back-woods route to fellow Emerald City residents Fleet Foxes.
According to the trio’s new label Jagjaguwar, latest effort No Witch is their “rock” album, and the appointment of Randall Dunn – best known for his work with Sunn O, Boris and Black Mountain – to the role of producer would certainly suggest a darker, heavier take on the mellow sounds of Invitation Songs and its 2009 follow-up Welcome Joy. But, once again, the band confound expectations; sure, there are more electric guitars than on its predecessors, and at various points it does shake, rattle and roll like a scrappy cousin to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, but whilst the album zig-zags between finger-picked folk and rootsy blues riffage, to describe any of its twelve tracks as “heavy” would be a stretch of even the most broad-minded imagination.
With a whiskey-and-cigarettes tone that sits comfortably alongside the likes of Ryan Adams, Quirke is a captivating focal point, and it’s his voice that drives the slightly sleepy opening one-two of “Gifts And The Raft” and “Swim Club”. Things pick up on “Black Leaf”, with drummer Marty Lund pounding out a tribal rhythm whilst Fudesco unleashes some see-sawing Bo Diddley riffage, and the creeping blues-funk of “Falls”, which blossoms into a full-blown gospel bliss-out. Elsewhere the band experiment with more varied styles; “Haller Lake” has an almost hip-hop swing and an Augustus Pablo-flavoured melodica riff, and the twitching percussion and droning electrical hum of “Faze Wave” suggests tour-bus listening might feature the odd bit of jazzy electronica.
Whilst in the past the group have sometimes struggled to maintain a steady grasp on the listener’s attention, No Witch features some of Cave Singers’ poppiest moments to date, and after two relatively samey albums, it’s a relief to find the trio trying out new ideas. With producer Dunn on board one can’t help but feel they missed an opportunity to come up with something particularly sinister, but the new sounds they incorporate into the mix sound like a natural progression rather than some forced attempt at experimental exploration. No Witch might not be a particularly ground-breaking album, but it is a significant leap forward for this band, and that’s most definitely a step in the right direction.