It has been said that the ’80s nostalgia and revivalism rampant in the past decade is bound to at some point give way to nostalgia and revivalism keyed in on the ’90s. For some reason this has been difficult to imagine. Or maybe it has just been undesirable to do so. It seems to me that there will be less for the musical archaeologist bent on productively plundering the past to unearth from the last decade of the previous century. But that may very well be because it was the first decade in which I was actively listening to and seeking out music, of course, with means completely different than those widely available to anyone with a good internet connection in the present.
But, with the exception of dance music (especially its rapid and constant transmutations in the UK during the ’90s), it is easier to see a lot of the popular and “underground” music of the decade as solidifications of slightly altered older forms rather than mutant hybrids that actually twist things around enough to rewire the listener’s hearing-mind in desirable ways. But, again, I am open to the fact that I may think this because I have found myself happily and successfully digging around in the detritus of the ’80s, if not being particularly enthused by the majority of backward-looking smooth, skewed, and synthesizer-hooked new releases. This is a longer story for another time.
All of this to say, the first record that reminds me immediately of the ’90s that I have found myself listening to on repeat is that which I am reviewing, Widowspeak‘s self-titled debut LP. And I like it. A lot. Which is only slightly surprising. Last year they released October Tape EP on their drummer, Michael Stasiak’s cassette label, Wack Slacks Tapes, and the song “Harsh Realm” received quite a bit of attention, appropriately, for its moody slouching into Mazzy Star territory, darkly dreamy, on the edge of violet, tranquil in despair. The Mazzy Star thing is unavoidable, mainly because Molly Hamilton sometimes, not always, comes off as just as breathy and waifish – not an easy trick – as the oft-adored Hope Sandoval. “Harsh Realm” was subsequently released as a single on Captured Tracks, and here appears in its best form yet, the sound thicker, the organ pulses on the languorous plateau higher in the mix, adding a brief narcotic release.
A few other songs from the tape appear here as well. There is the rolling and thundering “Nightcrawlers,” its twangy, vaguely country guitar, one of the band’s favorite affects, giving way to some grinding, psych-leaning squall. Closer “Ghost Boy” also appears in refurbished form, its intertwined guitar drone suggesting Mazzy Star’s more out-there moments, “So Tonight that I Might See,” for instance, before it floats into more staid territory, its initial psychological menace submerged beneath a few acres of hazey, splattered ambience as it builds to a tempered climax. “Yellow Light” from the cassette release has become “Half Awake,” a superior track that impresses through its solidity, as opposed to its former self’s vaporous bedroom-ambience.
The rest of the material is new, some of it, “Puritan” and second single “Gun Shy,” somehow moving between twisted, slightly psychedelic Americana and subdued power-pop with vocals multi-tracked into a pleasantly-bewitched feminine-pathogen that has more than once knocked me into thinking about the Breeders. Honestly, there is probably someone else that someone else would think of, but for me, the Breeders come to mind, here and there. The title of “In the Pines” will immediately suggest to plenty of people Kurt Cobain’s impassioned performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” if not the Leadbelly recording itself, but the song is more a half-zonked shot of rock ‘n roll, with guitars from a Johnny Kidd & the Pirates tune that was never quite written. “Limbs,” beginning with its reverb-heavy picked guitar alone accompanying Hamilton’s voice, tuned to its most woozy and forlorn, is more reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s slightly tripped ballad moments than anything I have heard since I heard them. The more country-tinged guitar work brings to mind disparate groups, the grace of Cowboy Junkies as much as the coarser and more visceral playing of Link Wray or Duane Eddy.
Sometimes music is just funny like that: you can love something simply for the oddness of it simultaneously sometimes sounding like something you love that no one else is particularly good at sounding like (Mazzy Star), and for being something that has intuitively and slyly managed to piece things together so that it at the same time sounds only like itself. And that is the feeling I have more and more as I listen to Widowspeak, the sensation of the frame, composed of the predecessors, giving way and myself sliding into its smoky charms, indulged by its tattered yet smooth choruses, bemused by the thin film of gloom cast out to every horizon by the hypnotizingly morose voice of Molly Hamilton.
Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
Cowboy Junkies – The Trinity Session
The Breeders – Last Splash
Stream: Widowspeak – “Harsh Realm”