This week, I watched a famous singer-actress slip into a new-old role, a hair-rock moll, and transform an ethereal wonder into power-ballad dreck. Her name isn’t important, but the song is: “Fade Into You.” Folks of a certain vintage and/or mindset will recognize it as a classic work by Mazzy Star, who painted melancholic dreamscapes like few others. As a result, in the years since it ruled modern-rock radio in 1994, pretty much every band that mines a similar sound winds up compared to them.
Widowspeak, aka Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas, is one such example. The first time I heard them, in 2013 with their second album Almanac, my mind’s ear made the Mazzy leap despite their songs being less dreamscape and more CinemaScope-lensed. It was hard not to, given the languid pacing and Hamilton’s phrasing. That same year, however, she explained to Guitar Girl Magazine that “Mazzy Star is an amazing band, but I didn’t really listen to them at all until our band had formed, and I had heard the comparison. It’s not really like a historic presence in our music. What actually influences us in our music are places, not that we’re a super-cinematic band, but we kind of try to convey a sense of place or sense of nostalgia for something; not necessarily musical nostalgia but nostalgia for a time or place. I think that for us it’s about like ‘I want the song to feel like this,’ and we kind of write the song that way. Like with Almanac, a lot of it was kind of like pastoral settings, not necessarily that it’s Americana, but the idea of the vastness of the American West; like spaghetti westerns meets ’70s films like Days of Heaven.”
Fast forward seven years to August 2020, when Widowspeak released their fifth LP, Plum. It’s another anamorphic shot of mostly laconic pop, with its lens focused on what Pitchfork’s Julia Gray dubs “modern anxieties.” It’s a good, not great, outing – and one that I admittedly missed at the time of its release. Pandemic life narrowed my own scope for a spell.
Honeychurch, an EP released on Jan. 22nd, includes a different spin on “Money” from Plum, two cover songs, a Plum cast-off (“Sanguine”) plus the short ambient title track. On their Bandcamp page, they explain that “Its title, a nod to E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, was originally a working title for Plum – it felt in line with the album’s thematic considerations of class, relationships, and generational ties, but was ultimately set aside.”
It’s well worth a few dozen listens, if not more. “Money” has been rechristened “Money (Hymn),” with its jaunty two-step rhythm replaced by a dense fog. The lyrics are somewhat slight (“money doesn’t grow on trees/tune out platitudes like these”), true, but sometimes a song’s lyrics are less important than the mood they impart. “Sanguine” expands upon that mood, trading matters of the purse for matters of the soul.
The two cover versions are utter delights, blending Widowspeak’s unique esprit with the color schemes of the originals. R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” for example, flashes back to the ‘80s much as a movie might, blurring at first before becoming clear. Their take on Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” is even better, with Hamilton’s phrasing conjuring Rickie Lee Jones. It’s quite cool.
The track list:
In addition to being available on the usual streaming services, the EP can be purchased over at Bandcamp.
Read your review and watched the vid of “Romeo and Juliette.” The singer has a wonderful voice, but I think the presentation would be much with a picture of the band or singer. The icon layered on the background is distracting in an unpleasant way. Nonetheless, a new listener has been exposed to the music you’ve reviewed, and that’s a good thing.