I didn’t hear immediately about Wovenhand‘s The Laughing Stalk upon its digital release on Sept. 11, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time with it since, the David Eugene Edwards-led Colorado progressive/neo-folk outfit continuing to seek the very kind of aural fullness that Edwards‘ prior outfit, 16 Horsepower, seemed so bent on eschewing. The Laughing Stalk (released by Sounds Familyre in the US and Glitterhouse in Europe in a limited-to-2,000 LP/CD run due in November) follows 2010′s The Threshingfloor (semi-review here), a powerful fifth album that set the tone for many of the explorations contained in these nine tracks, which run a stylistic gamut from the grandiose pop of “In the Temple” (which sounds like what U2 might be if they weren’t a vacuous minstrelsy of false importance) to the late-arriving distortion of “As Wool,” punkish in its snare insistence and as joyous as it is heavy.
Tying the material together is Edwards‘ unmatched depth of arrangement, unabashed Christian faith and inimitable vocal swagger. It is the latter that carries the landscape of opener “Long Horn,” though perhaps more than they’ve ever been, Wovenhand are a full band on The Laughing Stalk, and whatever presence Edwards brings to these tracks (he brings plenty) is enriched by the performances of guitarist Sir Charles French, bassist Gregory Garcia, drummer Ordy Garrison (who features often) and organist Jeffery Linsenmeier. Songs here are expansive, beginning with “Long Horn” and continuing through the viciously rhythmic closer “Glistening Black,” but there’s space in them as well, and as ever, Edwards gracefully straddles genre as only one genuinely unconcerned with it can.
In its stylistic sprawl, The Laughing Stalk basks in an expanded definition Americana, bringing in Native American rhythms and adapting them to a track like “King o King,” both one of the record’s heaviest and most memorable cuts, with verse proclamations no less resonant than the release of its chorus. Put in the Christian context, it’s a problematic mesh, but so is American history. Wherever individual pieces go, be it the shorter, avant incantations of “Closer” or the ethereal piano wonderment of “Maize,” which follows and begins with the single word “fox,” what remains firm is a focus on rhythm, on percussion, and an unmistakably heavy vibe. The music itself is often weighted, sonically I mean, and emotional heft is nothing new for Edwards with this band over the course of their now decade-long tenure, but as dark as Wovenhand have been at times in the past, the elements have never been quite put together in this combination.
Likewise, I’m not sure they’ve ever sounded quite so rapturous. While Garrison beats out a percussive line as to make Danny Carey of Tool circa “Reflection” blush, Edwards bides his time vocally for the power and fury to come later into the song, topping heady, far-back distorted guitars with a profession of faith that asks, “Who is like as you are?” in that elevated preacher’s son language that has always given Wovenhand a spiritual sensibility to go with their ultra-upfront religiosity, taking the words and not just repeating, but using them to speak.
About that: I’ve long been of the opinion that if you disparage a work of art on the basis of faith, whether it’s a statue of Buddha carved into the side of a mountain or a Trouble record, you’re a fool. There’s been no shortage truly heinous shit done in the name of Christianity throughout the last 1,800 years or so, but on the other hand, the Pietà (we can debate the balance of one side or the other ad nauseam, and people do, as if it could get them anywhere). If you can’t take Edwards turning dogma into gorgeous hymns as he does here, you’re the one losing out. “As Wool” and “Glistening Black” cap The Laughing Stalk with crushing, humbling grace, each enacting an album’s worth of build and exaltation on its own, and offering the collection’s most bombastic moments, never uncontrolled no matter how much they might seem to be on the verge of collapse.
Those who’ve never heard Wovenhand before who come from the heavier end of the spectrum will probably have more in The Laughing Stalk to cling to than they may have on earlier outings like 2004′s Consider the Birds or 2002′s self-titled debut, but everything on this album is no less Wovenhand now than that material was then. They’ve worked ceaselessly to push forward what that means, and however much pressure they may apply at any given moment in these songs, The Laughing Stalk shows no signs of breaking, and Wovenhand retain the mountainous sense of wonder that has typified their work since the start.
Tags: Colorado, Elktooth, Glitterhouse Records, Sounds Familyre, Wovenhand