Pastoral folk and the Pacific Northwest of the US, not so long ago, would have seemed unlikely bedfellows.
Seattle itself, despite its stunning situation amidst the mountains, bays and forests of Washington State, has taken a while to shake off its historical image of being a musical mecca for all things bleak, heavy and hairy. However, in recent years, a slew of young acts from the city have sought to banish all echoes of their native metropolis in lieu of a rustic evocation of mountain-dwelling, backwoods simplicity.
Among the latest batch of Seattleites to hit the trail are the Cave Singers. Despite a common background in some of the city’s punkier, darker acts, they have, with the release of No Witch, now created three albums of understated, wispy folk-blues scrawls.
A lot of this album rides on sonorous, circling melodies, major-key acoustic fingerpicking and close vocal harmonies. However, if you’re expecting them to be all sweetness and light, think again. For everything cosy, there’s a counterpoint creepiness, though often heartwarming, there’s a pulse-quickening edge, an ominous flock of vultures wheeling over every pristine prairie.
The Cave Singers, not to their detriment, tend to focus more on atmosphere than substance. Their general modus operandi is to create cyclical tunes, forgoing complex arrangements in favour of repeated patterns that worm their way into your consciousness, initially seeming slight threadbare scraps, but soon filling the dusty, desolate landscape they often evoke. There are no fireworks here. Derek Fudesco’s guitar is a warm-sounding burr of intelligent simplicity, and Marty Lund’s drums roll beneath everything like timber creaking beneath the waves. Rather than tarrying with twisting tempos and contrasting parts, the band gradually allow the levels of intensity rise and fall tidally throughout their songs, mostly leaving the album sounding charmingly organic.
Their secret weapon is probably Pete Quirk’s idiosyncratic voice, a nasal yet faintly feral heartstring twang that sounds a little like Richard Ashcroft gargling gravel, but in a good way. His delivery, strange as it may initially seem, quivers with a feverish emotion that, coupled with a winning line in observational-meets-existential lyrics, lends the Cave Singers’ music an exceptional individuality they might otherwise lack.
Admittedly, No Witch is probably something of a grower, not only for the uninitiated, but for more established fans as well. Compared to previous outings, the album exhibits a heavier touch, and the extra texture occasionally fails to serve the material perhaps as well as it could. By most accounts, calling in Randall Dunn (Sunn0))), Black Mountain, Boris) to fill the producer’s chair would appear to be a bizarre decision. When it works, it’s exactly what the songs need, with the greater range of instrumentation used, albeit sparingly, adding a bit of intrigue where otherwise songs might have rolled over and over themselves into a deep wagon-rut. When it doesn’t, however, there can be a somewhat jarring contrast with the inherent vulnerability in a lot of the band’s songs.
rides on sonorous, circling
The Cave Singers seem to have something of a trademark sparseness of sound, and some of the tracks tacked on to the barest bones don’t best benefit from a more maximalist approach. The gospel-vox backing on the chorus of the ultimately forgettable mountain-man porch-rocker ‘Haystacks’, the initially pleasant but increasingly irritating fiddle motif of sorrowful saccharine opener ‘Gifts And The Raft’, plus a few more examples, could be interpreted as an attempt to snatch tunes from the brink of potential blandness and shove them, willing or not, toward the multi-instrumental, crossover appeal heights of Americana almost-peers like, say, the Low Anthem.
There’s plenty of more than decent songs on No Witch, and overall it’s certainly a good album. Of the slow-burning songs, the ever-building melodic gem of ‘Swim Club’, the ebbing ‘All Land Crabs And Divinity Ghosts’ and the lovely campfire-embers lilt of ‘Distant Sures’ are a fine testament to their craft. At the opposite end of the Cave Singers spectrum sit the bluesy, rollicking rifferama of closer ‘No Prosecution If We Bail’ and, in particular, the snarling, shaking, vocally-driven tour-de-force of ‘Black Leaf’, showing a side of the band that has only previously been hinted at, but seems to suit them well.
No Witch also sees the Cave Singers entertain more experimental urges, with a recurring oriental influence permeating first the woozy, east-meets-western dirge of ‘Outer Realms’, and then more fully realised by ‘Faze Wave’, with its ever-burgeoning atmosphere, ominous kick drum and sudden rock riff scything through the heady haze.
In spite of the overall quality, however, only a couple of the songs would comfortably fit into a classic cannon. The churning ‘Falls’ is the first magisterial peak they surmount, rising in a slow spiral, endlessly threatening to explode into a crescendo but still surprising when it plunges into its soulful, organ and horn-embellished chorus.
The other true diamond concealed in No Witch is the sublime ‘Clever Creatures’, a nagging, pop-quality tunefulness counterbalanced by a torrential stream-of-consciousness vocal from Quirk. Only here do they truly achieve the mix of spaciousness and fullness that they seem to be aiming for on the rest of the album, and the result is a fantastic song.
At the end of the day, I must admit that No Witch took me a while to get into, but that stems from the impression that the Cave Singers are a band in transition, still finding the best way to convey their music. There are flashes of something quite special here, but even the band don’t seem to have put their finger on it yet. Hopefully, they will expand on the stronger tunes on this album, balancing the light and shade, the space and the claustrophobia, the expanse and the reductionism, because if they do, their next album will be a treasure indeed.
(Out now on Jagjaguwar)