Widowspeak’s eponymous debut suffers from a nasty case of first-track syndrome. Opener “Puritan,” is pure retrofitting pop gold: the bouncing, hollow guitar plucking coupled with guitarist/singer Molly Hamilton’s breathy and entrancing voice, grow assuredly as those individual notes compound into chords with sparse cymbal taps until a split-second slide up the neck of the guitar blows the song open into a swinger that recalls 50s rock and roll as much as it does 90s indie slack. The rest of the album? It has its moments, but few come close to living up to the promise of “Puritan.”
Appropriately released on Captured Tracks, this Brooklyn-based trio specializes in that Chris Isaak-like take on 50s rock/rockabilly, adding a haunting, cavernous feel to it (Widowspeak did a solid cover of Isaak’s seminal “Wicked Games” and released it as a the b-side of a single for album cut “Gun Shy”). They do it well, and there’s nothing particularly jarring about their take on this genre – the hooks are solid and there are enough lo-fi crackles and fuzzy guitars that they more or less make this sound their own. But they don’t really go much further than that. The majority of the songs on Widowspeak duly amble with such a lack of purpose – and, yes, that purpose can even be going nowhere, but that’s hardly apparent here – that not even creeping studio effects or distant distortion, as on “Limbs,” can knock these songs out of their perpetual lull. The valleys, frankly, are more like wide-stretching basins, and the peaks are far and few between, struggling even to break sea-level.
Those occasions where they do, however, are close to excellent. On the aforementioned “Gun Shy,” Hamilton croons, images of shotguns and pistols never sounding so sweet, over a smokey guitar line and quick but gentle hi-hat clicks, that give way to way to an unexpectedly edgier chorus, Hamilton’s voice intertwining with distorted guitar noodling. There’s a confidence to “Gun Shy” that pops up every now and then on Widowspeak – the freewheeling “Fir Coat,” or the eerie stomp and jangle-out-of-hell guitar solo of “Nightcrawlers” – and you catch a glimpse at the band’s knack for songwriting, but even at their best you can’t help but feel there could be just a bit more.
Unfortunately, Widowspeak doesn’t offer that extra push. Instead, the rest of the record is heavy with hazy, feet-dragging tunes that practically ask you to just nod off mid-song. Again, it’s not that cuts like “Harsh Realm” or “Limbs” will offend your ear or musical sensibilities, it’s just that, well, they’re kind of boring. And what’s more is that Widowspeak show, at least to a certain extent, that they can do interesting things with this style: ”In The Pines” pushes into the red just enough to take your mind off the straightforward drumming and another deliberately plucked guitar line. Slow-burning closer “Ghost Boy” eventually makes the most of everyone’s favorite Phil Spector drumbeat, when, in the closing minutes, the track peaks as a wailing organ slinks in before perfectly morphing into steady eighth-note stabs – but then right as it’s bringing you in, the song, and album, slow to a close.
Widowspeak is promising. The band is working with a very unique and specific sound, and throughout the record you get the sense that they certainly have the ability to push this aesthetic in some interesting directions. But as of right now, Widowspeak are a perfectly enjoyable, if ultimately unexciting band. It’s a record to fit a Sunday in early November, a day where it’s just a bit too cold and grey out – perfectly pleasant in and of itself, but you can’t help but wish that maybe it was a little warmer or if the sky wouldn’t mind clearing up just a bit.