[22 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Right off the bat, the title of the new Cave Singers’ album surely marks a change. Following the inclusive, feel-good titles of Invitation Songs and Welcome Joy, we get No Witch—a denial, an isolation, a rigid setting oneself apart either from darkness or towards it. No matter how it isolates, there’s an edge to that title the others lack, and that edge comes across in the songs themselves, adding a sweating vitality to their spare folk sound.
In some ways, that edge is just what they needed. To this point, the Cave Singers’ sound has been steady, and often vibrant, but maybe a bit too pleasant for its own good. Like so many new bands that fall under that amorphous umbrella “indie”, they’ve moved away from the nerve and defiance that term once encompassed. Instead of pushing against the norm, bands now seem to have fallen behind the sweet pop sounds of the Shins—or perhaps it came earlier—to make music that may be eccentric, but poses no threat and offers little in the way of cultural tension. That’s not to say these records aren’t good, or that the Cave Singers haven’t made their own name in this land of pastoral-folk-pop-whatever-you’d-call-it, but sometimes you just want your music, no matter how lilting it might be, to bare its teeth once in a while.
Which is exactly what the Cave Singers do on the finer moments of No Witch. It’s not out and out exposed nerve either—these songs are still tempered with the dry snap of the band’s dusty sound. It’s just that everything gets stepped up here, infused with a thread of urgency. The shuffling downhill snare of “All Land Crabs and Divinity Ghosts”, for example, seems to spur on Pete Quirk’s vocals, and his low rasp cracks in a warbling tension when he pleads, “C’mon, wake me up.” Elsewhere, they build “Falls” up into a surprising blues-rock shuffle, making a song that keeps their bare elements but flexes a newfound, lean muscle. Even the more languid opener, “Gifts and the Raft”, with its ringing guitars and floating vocals, earns its own frantic (if barely there) buzz once the violin spins its way through the track, and drummer Marty Lund punctuates it with sharp rim taps.
Though these still sound very much like the folk-influenced tunes we’ve heard from these guys before, the best parts of No Witch earn the band’s claim that this is their “rock” record. Because, in feeling, it is. It’s most apparent on the ramshackle charge of “Haystacks”, but even those quieter moments have a subtle rock-band bite to them. In fact, when they delve too far into rock territory here, that seems to be where things get tricky. “Black Leaf” employs a ragged electric guitar that moves between crunching chords and basic blues riffs. In the verses, when the riffs are muted, the sound works. But otherwise, the guitar sounds removed from the spare percussion, and thin without a thick bass to back it up. “Clever Creatures” fares a little better, coming off as shimmering power-pop in the way the acoustic rings over the more fleshed-out drumming, but despite its propulsive feel, it actually comes off as lower-energy next to the floor-stomping numbers earlier in the record.
Those steps out, even if they don’t fully work, are more welcome than the overly sweet “Swim Club”, which—with lines like “Put your cookies on the cooling rack, let’s kiss the night away”—not only doesn’t fit the feel of the record, but feels leftover from the past. It probably feels dated because the rest of No Witch sounds like the band moving forward. Elements of rock & roll and blues, combined with a sharp new vitality, have given their sound a hot-blooded charge. It might still be restrained, and it still sounds fragilely beautiful, but even when it just misses this album will stir you up in all the right ways.