In today’s era of chic folk revivalism, the term “folk music” itself has lost much of its original meaning and significance. The current vernacular seems to apply the idiom to any and all bands that build their sound around the template of a rollicking acoustic guitar. What this serves to do is recognize the form for its more common devices rather than its essence. Folk music, of course, initially meant exactly what its name implied — music made by and for the common people to express their experiences both mundane and extraordinary, passed down generationally via word of mouth and altered along the way, performed on whatever makeshift instruments were available and using simple song structures often harkening back to European traditions. Under this broad definition, nearly every genre of American roots music can be classified as folk, including the blues and country, which in turn led to umpteen genres and subgenres.
In this sense, you could classify the Brooklyn duo Widowspeak as a folk band, if you really wanted to. The cover art of sophomore album Almanac has vocalist-guitarist Molly Hamilton and multi-instrumentalist Robert Earl Thomas looking every bit the rural dwellers, standing beside a waterfall and everything. But unlike most of the ilk lumped under the modern folk banner, they understand and appreciate the form is not truly defined by acoustic instrumentation with a banjo thrown in for good measure. They avoid simply replicating a genre by playing up its archaic superficialities; instead, they staple and stitch various styles of America’s musical lineage, amalgamating blues, country, psychedelia, punk and noise rock, forming a breed of post-modern folk. They’re a folk band in spirit, not in literal duplication.
The 12 songs of Almanac are steeped in ambiance, evoking distinct seasons, locales and eras. A rustic and sparse mood pervades most of the record, despite the complex interplay of instruments and a sound that seems too big to have been created by a two-member band. No doubt this is the result of the album having been recorded in a century-old barn in the bucolic Hudson River Valley. Like the Cowboy Junkies’ use of an old church to record The Trinity Session, the provisional studio imparts an atmosphere and sense of history to the album, one the listener can feel without knowing the specifics of the process.
Opener “Perennials”, with its rain patter and banjo plucking, places the listener in the Appalachian woodlands on a wet fall day, blankets of dead leaves underfoot. As you settle in, though, the song’s abrupt ending transports you to the sweeping, desolate air of “Dyed in the Wool”, its western guitar line and electric organ undercurrent eliciting the sensation of being beneath a starry night in the desert. Most effective, and specific, of all, though, is “Thick as Thieves”, wherein droning harmonium and sinister bass notes craft the theme befitting an undertaker in a Sergio Leone western measuring the victims of a lynch mob for their boxes.
Such richness is largely owed to Thomas’s skills as an aural architect. With “Devil Knows”, he fuses a psychedelic guitar swirl in the verses which seamlessly segues into a more traditional rock crunch, all while a bluegrass twang supports the piece as a whole. “Sore Eyes” similarly juxtaposes a seedy, 1940s film noir soundtrack melody with the static of what sounds like backtracked electric guitar arpeggios, somehow resulting in a feeling of lying on a beach at nighttime and letting the waves roll over you.
The importance Hamilton’s voice plays in sculpting such a looming aura cannot be understated. Her whispery breathiness, echoing Hope Sandoval, is alternately warm and comforting or chilling and foreboding. In both instances, you can feel each line she delivers in your chest, like smoke leaving your lungs. With her vocals’s childlike quality, she plays either the mischievous sprite goading you into a game of hide-and-seek (“Ballad of the Golden Hour”) or the insidious spirit luring you to your demise (“Storm King”). Her style of precocious cooing and obfuscating lyrics is more often found in twee pop and opium den dirges rather than Almanac‘s down and dirty paradigm, which creates some dissonance on the first few listens. Once it sinks in, though, it becomes clear that the tapestries are in fact better informed by Hamilton’s voice, functioning as it does as an instrument on the same level as the music, rather than playing overtop of it. Think of Bilinda Butcher’s contributions to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless to get an idea of how Hamilton’s vocals meld with the instrumentation. With the downstream drift of “Minnewaska”, for example, she personifies the easy glassy ripples on an isolated lake, and coupled with the natural sounds of crickets and spring peepers, she triggers the nostalgia of one trying to nab fireflies in some evening glen.
As with most albums that so heavily focus on mood, Almanac is not quite so immediately rewarding, requiring multiple listens to align yourself with its rhythm. As an extension of that, it similarly is an album that all but requires the listener to meet it halfway in having an established disposition. It is a great record for complimenting a temperament you’re already in, which means it isn’t an album you can spin every day. Niche though it may be, it is far more organic and authentic for experimenting with the folk model than the plethora of records churned out by ersatz acts.