By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
While nationally acclaimed acts such as Denton's Sarah Jaffe went from folkie to dance-party host and Midlake went from Fleetwood Mac revivalists to flute-piping British balladeers, True Widow have remained inside their gloomy, pounding world of ominous reverb since 2007. Reinvention of one's sound can be admirable, risky and, in the hands of the right artists (see the aforementioned Jaffe), rewarding. Still, there's more than a little to be said for a band that continues to march ever more effectively down a single path.
Dallas' True Widow (singer-guitarist D.H. Phillips, drummer Slim, TX (aka Timothy Sparks) and singer-bassist Nicole Estill) have done just that and their reward is a flawless new album: Circumambulation — the band's first from the beloved Relapse Records label. They recorded it last November at the esteemed Echo Lab a few miles outside of Denton with Centro-matic's Matt Pence as producer — a role he's played for the group's entire recording career.
Phillips — True Widow's main songwriter — isn't only an artist when a guitar is in his hand. The full-time furniture maker also creates the haunting album art for the group. Phillips understands the band has a signature sound, but he and his bandmates are still willing to experiment.
"I think every band would like a sonic identity," Phillips says only days before the new record's July 23 release date. "Ours is purely circumstantial. The only calculated aspect of the band is that, when we put the band together, it was important to me to have a female counterpoint. Everything else has seemed to fall into place. The tempos, rhythms and the tonal quality of guitars that are tuned differently are things that made themselves and developed. The songs really take shape when we get into them as a band."
Unlike much of what is heard on the group's self-titled 2008 debut LP and 2011's As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth, the singing of Phillips and Estill is more clearly pronounced on this latest offering. On previous albums, the words have come across as more of a hypnotically melodic ride than storytelling. But the more prominent vocals have more to do with texture than increased prominence — the band knows their strength lies in creating moods and vibes that mere words often aren't capable of.
"I think that we've tried to let the vocals set where they fit best for each album," says Sparks, who sports a well-grizzled mountain-man beard. "Tones and frequency usage change a bit each time, so it just happens to be what's best — in our opinions — for that song or session."
"We spend a decent amount of time playing with the vocal level," Phillips adds. "I will always think they are too loud. The usual approach is to turn them down initially and then slowly make them audible."
Phillips has little use for meaningful lyrics, and would rather listeners ingest the abstract wording in each song as just another layer.
"Writing lyrics is one of my least favorite things to do," Phillips admits. "I usually sing gibberish, and over time, the gibberish turns to actual words. I never sit down to write what is essentially a poem. Once everything is done, and I can listen back, I can usually pick out one or two interpretations of the lyrics. My goal is to not sound like a fool."
Estill sings on older songs such as "Skull Eyes" and Circumambulation's stand-out track "Four Teeth," lending a dreamy, ethereal quality to what often sounds like the soundtrack to a blizzard-covered nightmare. She agrees with Phillips' take on vocals.
"We treat the vocals more as just another instrument and not necessarily the forefront of a song," she says. "The music itself tells a story, so the lyrics are there to support it."
On Circumambulation there's an addictive and foreboding sense of mystery in each tune. In a live setting, the band dutifully and solemnly conducts its business without cracking even the slightest smile much of the time. That would only serve to distract from the marvelous malaise. There are no sonic reprieves and no posturing.
Like the album art and the lyrics and most every other aspect of the band, the track names are opaque. Three of the new record's tunes offer only initials with colons separating them as titles. Song names like "S:H:S," "I:M:O," and "HW:R" beg to be picked apart, but good luck getting the members of the band to help you with that task. Intrigue is as important an instrument for True Widow as anything else.
"I'm not sure why we started doing that," Phillips says. "Every band has code words for songs. I think it started initially because we had a song with a goofy name, so we started calling it KR instead of what KR stands for."
An upcoming September tour with the equally enigmatic Chelsea Wolf will take the band around most of the country, and the band will surely see their profile grow. But no matter how many times they're mentioned on Pitchfork and regardless of the size of the crowds seeing them, True Widow will remain focused on the music. They're plenty happy with their gloom.