Widowspeak's excellent, eponymous 2011 debut was a murky record that paid homage both to the psychedelic grit of 1960s garage and the soundscapes of 1990s shoegaze. Singer Molly Hamilton cooed and rasped in the spirit of Hope Sandoval or Naomi Yang. The album toyed with genres, from spaghetti Western on "Gun Shy" to spooky post-punk on "Brain Freeze" (a digital bonus track) without ever compromising the album's dominant mood.
The band returns on Almanac with a lot less grit and a lot more polish. They recorded the album with Kevin McMahon, whose résumé includes Real Estate's magnificent Days (an album with an autumnal fuzz very in the spirit of 2011's Widowspeak) and Titus Andronicus' raucous The Monitor. And yet Almanac feels overwhelmingly glossy on tracks like "Ballad of the Golden Hour," which builds from campfire folk song to steel-guitar-inflected serenade, or "Thick as Thieves," an orchestral dirge that could easily be a lost B-side by Star-era Belly. Despite moments of static on tracks like "The Dark Age" (which is also the album's finest), the album lacks attitude.
But Almanac suffers from a preciousness that Widowspeak lacked. It's a more baroque record, more glistening and prettified. What worked so well on their first record was the juxtaposition of Hamilton's thin and delicate vocal presence with the slightly dirty production values. On Almanac, a cleaner sound translates into something less dynamic and less exciting. Album opener "Perennials" is angelic but empty. Widowspeak's songcraft has been traded in for repetitive atmospherics.