Considering how Mumford & Sons — a.k.a. those four British dudes who dress like they lived during the Taft administration — are arguably both the most successful folk-rock band on the airwaves right now and frontrunners for Best Americana Album at this year’s Grammys, it’s fair to make the assumption that geographical origins do not play as important a role in the genre as they did in the 1920s and 30s. Like any other type of modern music, Americana has been diffused, diluted, and deconstructed, inside the heartland and out. After all, its traditional rudiments — country, folk, bluegrass, R&B — have been anything but constant over the past century or so. The only aspect of the genre that’s prevailed in our modern popular conscience is, ironically enough, one that is related liminally to the music itself. I’m speaking, of course, about the American aesthetic: Emersonian solitude, homespun style, mountain vistas, wood cameras, banjos. It’s a sensibility that was immortalized in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and one that later fueled the Instagrammed hipster renaissance of the late aughties. In other words, just like hip-hop, punk, or indie, the image of Americana, as opposed to the sound itself, serves as the focal point of our discussions on the subject.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, then, one might preemptively dismiss Almanac, the new album from Brooklyn band Widowspeak, as a ham-fisted love-letter to the 70s folk boon. The album was recorded in an old barn, has vaguely Fleetwood Mac-ish cover art, and even its title has a country nostalgia to it, a reference to the books used by farmers to predict weather patterns and celestial movements (I’m pretty sure most farmers use iPhones now). But refreshingly, Almanac is largely a great success: a record that builds upon the duo’s sparse, murky shoegaze by incorporating elements of Americana in a manner that feels effortless and epic, rather than heavy-handed.
One of the reasons why Widowspeak’s debut was so successful was its use of sonic space. Instrumentally, the songs were sparse and empty-sounding, but they also possessed a sinister sensuality about them, as if the listener were eavesdropping on a hushed confessional through a ghostly veil. The ethereal — ectoplasmic, even — combination of Molly Hamilton’s sexy, listless coo and Robert Earl Thomas’ spindly guitars was behind much of this musical atmosphere, but it was also due in part to the band’s economical approach to recording. Co-producers Kevin McMahon and Thomas aim for a fuller sound this time around, filling up the blank spaces with shimmering guitars, heavy bass riffs, and the occasional flourish of synth. But they don’t defog things completely either, which makes for some impressive, dynamic moments: the fuzzy solo, for instance, that rears its head halfway through “The Dark Age,” only to sink back into slumber; the throbbing guitar line that cuts through hazy opener “Perennials.”
Also retained is the band’s shadowy aestheticism, wedded this time to Neil Young-inspired country as opposed to dream pop à la Mojave 3. Indeed, Young’s influence can be heard all over Almanac, especially in the Harvest-y “Dyed in the Wool” and lilting ballad “Sore Eyes.” The other aural touchstone here is Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and its M.O. of tip-toeing, rather than charging, towards the epic; “Ballad of the Golden Hour,” this record’s sucker-punch of a single, shares a similar approach, starting off slow and teasingly building up to an intensely satisfying second half, complete with a muscle-y guitar breakdown. Although there are missteps — amorphous closer “Storm King” never picks up momentum, and the awkward collision of slide and New Wave guitars on “Spirit is Willing” sounds sloppy rather than sultry — the album on the whole is an interesting take on Americana.
But what is Americana in 2013? Is it the aesthetic, the music, both, or neither? The beauty of the genre is that its meanings are not restricted to the Cracker Barrel mythology described earlier. Even if contemporary culture mandates the inclusion of an entire bluegrass ensemble and Jack & Diane stories, the truth is that Americana, like America itself, is an amorphous concept. Musically and conceptually, Widowspeak’s America — and Americana — derives its unique definition from both tradition and modernity: the cheery calm of the past mixed with the sulky paranoia that comes from expansion and war and modern growing pains. Armed with bolstered production and the band’s strongest songcraft to date, Alamanac represents not only the next step for Widowspeak, but perhaps the next point in our never-ending discussion of what “real” folk is in the 21st century.