August 18, 2011

Douglas Martin still likes all things Sarah.

As we wander further into the 21st Century, “indie” is gradually becoming more of a lifestyle than a way of life, a simple aesthetic more than a breathing culture. And with that comes the influx and subsequent popularity of bland, inoffensive music made by small bands, aural window dressing to match your wallpaper. The quality bar for indie-pop music in particular has been lowered drastically, finding certain people defending bland, garden-variety twee bands in dire need of a pepper grinder, proclaiming that anybody whose standards for the genre remain high is “missing the point.”

Yes, it’s 2011 and yes, most everything has been both done and done to death artistically. But this is not high school; you don’t get attendance points and should have to prove your mettle in order to be received favorably. There should be no room for coddling banal Sarah Records retreads when the genuine article can accessed almost instantly courtesy of a working internet connection. Widowspeak is pitch-perfect proof of how to retain the immediacy and simplicity of indie-pop without falling into the trap of anonymity.

The collection of songs on Widowspeak are pop songs in the most basic of terms, with frontwoman Molly Hamilton exploring a wide range of moods with her not-so-wide vocal range and arsenal of sweet-spot-hitting chord changes. Hamilton’s calm, breathy alto carries the same mysterious and seductive feel of Hope Sandoval, the comparison between the two having already cropped up so many times that it’s starting to become rote even a week removed from the band’s debut release.

But, in addition to the fact that there are far worse singers to be compared to, Hamilton uses her voice to great effect here: She sounds effortlessly breezy on “Hard Times,” changes the refrain of “I always think about you” on “Harsh Realm” from potentially cliché to absolutely enticing, and offers a measured hum to preface the noisy chaos that marks the end of “Nightcrawlers”. Voice aside, her songwriting is what makes Widowspeak such an immediately engaging listen, being able to pair up a haunting acoustic track like “Limbs” with shuffling lead-single “Gun Shy”.

Hamilton and her Sandovalian coo may be the album’s biggest draw and main talking point, which would make guitarist Robert Earl Thomas the band’s secret weapon. Throughout Widowspeak, his wildly intuitive guitar playing– including but not limited to slinky Spaghetti-Western leads in “Gun Shy” and “In the Pines” and breezy pop riffs on “Hard Times”– increases the replay value of each of the album’s songs. Thomas bolsters the sugar-rush of opener “Puritan” with overdriven guitar work, is responsible for the thrilling, dissonant climax of “Nightcrawlers,” and adds remarkably restrained psych drone to “Limbs”. On songs like “Fir Coat,” Thomas bends and distorts notes on his six-string like a singer struggling to hit a high note. There’s really no end to the hair-raising moments he provides on the album, being a consistent scene-stealer throughout Widowspeak, his instincts elevating his band from solid indie-pop to something much substantial.

And that’s where Widowspeak succeeds: in its ability to be taken both at face value as good guitar-pop music, and to use that footing to take incredibly interesting left turns without sacrificing the catchiness of it all. In an era where indie-pop risked turning stale by its mass oversimplification and the idea that the tapping into the lowest common denominator is the way to reach the widest audience, Widowspeak is unafraid to showcase a wide array of moods and even– gasp!– a tiny bit of imagination and creativity into their arrangements. Sarah Records and Slumberland fetishists take note: this is how indie-pop is supposed to be done.

Download:
MP3: Widowspeak-“Gun Shy”