By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
After touring and recording with Slowride for a handful of years, the last thing on Dan Phillips' mind was forming another band. While living in Boston and attending a furniture-making school and contemplating his future, he did what he normally does to pass the time: sit on his couch and play guitar. Always a prolific writer, Phillips messed around with open tunings and wound up composing True Widow's adored 2008 self-titled debut album himself. But it was all by accident.
"I don't sit down to write," he says. "I just sit down to play. And I might end up writing."
Like the writing process, pretty much everything that has happened to the Dallas band has come organically. From the first show they played to how they got onto their present label, the band's been kept afloat by their humble desires. And that doesn't look to change in 2011, with the release this month of True Widow's second album, their first for Brooklyn-based Kemado Records. Yes, it has a lengthy title: As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth. But any thought that Phillips and his bandmates' debut was a fluke quickly dissipates upon first listen. With countless local shows and a couple of tours behind them, the experience and growth showcased on the new disc makes that first record, great as it was, sound safe by comparison.
This time around, guitarist/vocalist Phillips, bassist/vocalist Nicole "Nikki" Estill and drummer Tim "Slim" Starks have crafted a nine-song collection that runs slightly under an hour. The autumnal, minor-key bliss is back, naturally, on a disc that sounds like the logical progression from what they've done before.
The first three songs on High roll through like Mack trucks, with their heavy sound and length. Guitars slice, the bass pummels and the drums battle things out through a forest of cymbals. Then there are songs like "Skull Eyes" and "Night Witches," which even have a bit of pep in them. Imagine the dream pop of Lush reformed with vintage fuzz pedals—especially on "Skull Eyes." In addition, many of the vocals sound like they were cut in an abandoned cathedral.
But, great as it might sound to record in an abandoned cathedral, High was actually recorded in the same place as the band's debut—in Denton, at The Echo Lab, with Matt Pence running the board. Pence is no stranger to working with Phillips: They worked on a Slowride record together, as well as one with The Mag Seven, Phillips' old instrumental side project.
"He just knows how to make things sound awesome," Phillips says of Pence with a grin. "All of my favorite recordings of my whole life—my personal discography—Matt Pence has had something to do with them. So there's something to be said with that."
Recording took place in August and September of last year, in two eight-day blocks.
"We tried to keep it pretty even," Estill says, sitting around her apartment with her bandmates by her side.
And that's roughly what happened, though there were some touch-ups in the second eight-day span—a few overdubs here and there. But the end result hardly sounds like a rush job.
Mostly, it sounds familiar. Since releasing their debut, True Widow have peppered their sets with bits and pieces of new material.
"It's been so long since we recorded our first record that we had lots of songs," Phillips says. "How we picked these, I don't know."
Nonchalant as he may sound, though, there's no wimping out in the songs. If there's a build, there's a payoff.
"It's more of a story, each song," Estill says. "Whether the story's finished or not."
This time around, Estill's a bigger part of that story, sharing more lead vocal duties with Phillips—mostly, the band says, as a result of the lineup being fully in place, giving the band dynamic more time to settle.
"I think every song would be great for Nicole to sing," Phillips says, pausing as he tries formulating his next thought. Estill cuts him off: "They're not [all] in my range."
More than a few are, though. A fine example: Phillips sang "Jackal," the opening track on High, for six months until the band ultimately decided to have Estill sing it instead. And the vocal interplay between Phillips and Estill, which so charmed on the first release, is vastly more present this time around.
So, too, is evidence that the band is working with a new record label for High; the larger recording budget is obvious. How the band ended up on a label that allowed them a larger recording budget is less so. Consider that story a testament as to why all bands should answer all fan mail, if possible.
Before their final tour for True Widow, a fan in Philadelphia contacted the band via e-mail, saying how much he looked forward to them coming through. The band responded with a few home-recorded new demos to share with the fan, who in turn sent material to a few record labels he thought might be interested, including Kemado.
Kemado, as one might expect, loved what they heard. No, really, they loved the demos.
"They wanted to release the demos," Phillips says. "We couldn't do that. The demos were wrong and had gibberish vocals. They were unreleasable."
So the label agreed to a recording budget and the band recorded High how they wanted—which is to say slowly and loudly, or, as the band describes it, with a "stonegaze" appeal.
"Tempo is something that we talk a lot about," Starks says, "I think more than we really realize it."
Phillips credits Unwound's Leaves Turn Inside You as an early influence on the band's sound, given that he was listening to it quite a bit in Boston as he started to write. But other, more obvious connections, such as Failure, Hum and Low, never crossed his mind. Matter of fact, the trio had never heard of those bands until people made those comparisons for them, usually while on tour.
"When you're there doing it, you're not thinking about, 'Oh, potentially there's this other band from 10 years ago that might have captured this one element in this one song,'" Starks says. "You're doing what you're doing to do it."
These days, that "doing" includes a few stops at SXSW, then up through the East Coast in April with ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Surfer Blood. They hope to tour Europe shortly thereafter. But, as with everything else in this band's career, True Widow are for now steadfastly holding on to their wait-and-see approach.
"We'll see what happens," Phillips says.
And, in his defense, that's not a bad philosophy. It's worked out well enough so far.