All Them Witches, Sleeping Through the War: Dancing on the Alabaster

all them witches sleeping through the war

Devil’s in the details, right? All Them Witches commune with plenty of both across the eight tracks of Sleeping Through the War. Their fourth album overall and second for New West Records behind 2015’s Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (review here), its 46-minute run basks in a depth of arrangement yet unheard from the Nashville four-piece, from the is-someone-behind-you knocks of opener “Bulls” to the swirling layers of Ben McLeod‘s guitar and Sgt. Pepper-style flashes of Mellotron and other keys that ensue, to the slight delay in bassist Michael Parks, Jr.‘s vocals between the channels on “3-5-7” that seem to make that song all the more psychedelic, to the guest harmonica of Mickey Raphael in the just-under-10-minute closing jam “Guess I’ll Go Live on the Internet.”

Parks, McLeod, key specialist Allan Van Cleave — Rhodes, piano, Mellotron, the organ that brings such soul to “3-5-7,” etc. — and drummer Robby Staebler, who’s joined in his considerable percussive efforts by the rest of the band on “Alabaster” as well as producer Dave Cobb on the brief push of “Bruce Lee,” appear to be willfully tackling the kind of songwriting approach they so readily avoided their last time out.

Where Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, which had the rather sizable task of following 2013’s Lightning at the Door (review here), invited the listener into the room during its process of creation, feeling very much a roll-tape-and-see kind of experience, Sleeping Through the War is unquestionably more complete in the studio-record sense. Its songs feel finished and, with special mention to Eddie Spear at Creative Workshop in Nashville, who recorded and mixed, they offer a spaciousness like nothing All Them Witches have conjured to-date, going back to their self-produced 2012 debut, Our Mother Electricity (review here). With the quirk of “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and the ear-worm repetitions of “Alabaster,” it is All Them Witches‘ finest outing yet and 2017’s earliest contender for album of the year.

They begin at a drift with “Bulls,” which is the longest cut on the first half of the record at 6:42 but takes its time unfolding amid sounds that seem captured from some otherworldly beach, the foursome gradually coming together and introducing one of the key elements that will distinguish the complexity at work across Sleeping Through the War in the echoing choral backing vocals of guests Caitlin Rose, Tristen and Erin Rae. This trio behind Parks gives “Bulls” an aspect of classic soulfulness, and ultimately help tie the different movements of the full-length together as they appear throughout “3-5-7,” “Am I Going Up?” and “Alabaster,” at times adding ambient melody behind a chorus, as on “Am I Going Up?,” and bringing “3-5-7” to glories of psychedelic gospel proportions as its hook swells from the rhythmically engaging groove-meander of its open-spaced verse.

All Them Witches have always played toward bluesy conventions in one way or another, and if bringing these singers in is how they’re doing it this time, it’s an effective expansion of that drive, and one they’re correct in basically announcing outright in the opener, since “Bulls” has the rather formidable task of bringing the listener into Sleeping Through the War‘s textural universe — it also finds Parks delivering the title-line early — as it shifts from its initial dreaminess into an exciting, full-thrust, kitchen-sink cosmic wash after the halfway point; a one-song celebration of the band’s increase in scope that will only continue to expand as the rest of the record plays out behind it.

That’s a process that begins gracefully with the grunge-blues of “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” picking up from the end of “Bulls” with Parks‘ line, “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me how to run my town,” and moving into a chorus about, yes, not liking coffee and people “Letting out from the suburbs/Layin’ us to waste” after the instrumental push is unveiled, McLeod‘s crunching riff conversing with Nirvana along the way as Staebler eases the transitions to and from the verse with gleeful snare work and fills during stops between measures of the hook. “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and “Bruce Lee,” which follows, are arguably the most straightforward of the inclusions on Sleeping Through the War — they’re also the shortest, at just over three minutes apiece — and while they maintain the band’s personality and deeply individualized take, they’re also rock songs and clearly intended to be taken as such. Where the central impact of Dying Surfer Meets His Maker was in its wandering moments, Sleeping Through the War embraces cohesion of craft on a different level entirely, and between “Bulls,” “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and “Bruce Lee,” that vibe carries through the rest of the material, which from “3-5-7” onward balances structure against increasingly varied psych-blues jamming.

In terms of the overarching flow of Sleeping Through the War, it is pivotal that “3-5-7,” “Am I Going Up?” and “Alabaster” appear in succession. While they in no way fail to leave their own mark, they also serve as a transitional “third” — as much as one can have thirds with eight tracks — following the opening salvo and leading into closing duo “Cowboy Kirk” and “Guess I’ll Go Live on the Internet,” bringing back RoseTristen and Rae from the opener to tie the album together while moving in intent further away from the rawer approach of “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and “Bruce Lee.” “3-5-7,” all odds and prime numbers, ranks among the most immersive songs All Them Witches have written to this point in their career. Its chorus surrounds and engulfs with melodic comfort, and the surge they create is not at all out of place because of the foreshadow they provided for it on “Bulls.”

Again, the details. Parks, whose bassline only minutes ago danced into the noisy finish of “Bruce Lee,” switching channels on vocals amid lines like, “Tell me how much can I convince you to stomach?/I am focused/I am focused…,” the swirls of effects even on Staebler‘s drums — something that will be even more crucial to “Cowboy Kirk” shortly — the always-essential key work of Van CleaveMcLeod‘s movement between interacting with those keys in the verse and the fuller fuzz of the chorus; once more All Them Witches provide evidence that it is the whole effect of the band working together rather than any single member that creates their most standout and progressive stretches. Hypnotic, “3-5-7” is a landmark unto itself, but still a piece of a larger function at work between it, “Am I Going Up?” and “Alabaster,” which while perhaps not as outwardly spacious, run successively longer and branch off from what “3-5-7” sets in motion.

“Am I Going Up?” meets the complexity of its initial guitar and bass progressions with a relatively simple, sing-song lyric, Parks joined gradually by the backing chorus. A rumble either of keys or guitar effects takes hold at about the midpoint, but recedes as the chorus resurfaces, only come up again and carry through to the ending, which finds the song drifting into the more purposefully solidified “Alabaster,” which finds its crux in the word itself, around which is weaved a tale of alienation, melody and trades between quiet and loud movements more patient than, say, “Bulls,” but all the more affecting for that. A well-percussed jam takes hold, Parks making various proclamations over top before signaling a rhythmic turn with the line, “Every day they look more and more like me” the finds the band kicking in with a subtle complexity in timing that leads to a final stomp through the instrumental hook and a cold stop from which Staebler‘s echoing drums pick up for the start of “Cowboy Kirk.”

At 6:51, “Cowboy Kirk” is only a few seconds shorter than “Alabaster” (which runs 6:59), and that’s not dissimilar from how “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and “Bruce Lee” functioned earlier. The feeling of common intent is furthered in a lyrical structure that, like “Alabaster,” wraps in part around a single idea — in the case of “Cowboy Kirk,” it’s “Love you like…” — but ultimately, much as “Bruce Lee” had a different direction from the song before it, so does “Cowboy Kirk,” which turns fills out a languid, bouncing jam with swells in volume from Van Cleave and full fuzz tones and leads from McLeod, feeling almost dangerously open by the time it hits four and a half minutes, but working its way back to the firm ground of its verse and chorus again to close. In the context of what follows, this move feels (which is to say, I wouldn’t guess it actually is) done in deference to the closer itself, and the molten, harmonica-laden flow of “Guess I’ll Go Live on the Internet” earns its place immediately. Led into by the keys and a quick drum crash, its chillout-factor is prevalent even before the spoken and sung layers of vocals start, piano flourish punctuating the stops of the first chorus: “If you’re asking me/I got one thing to say/If I can’t live here/Guess I’ll go live on the internet.”

Calm swagger, deep green hues, cool vibes — however you want to paint it, “Guess I’ll Go Live on the Internet” is in some ways a prototype All Them Witches jam, but it’s not without its hook either, and by the time they’re two minutes deep, they’ve run through the chorus twice with deceptive efficiency. About two minutes after that, they’re ready to depart into the instrumental ether that will carry to the finish of Sleeping Through the War, marked out by dream-tone spaced guitar, the unshakable but totally shaking progression of the drums and smooth turns of keys and bass to coincide with the guest harp — the band very much in their element having arrived at the place where their fourth album ends up. They finish patiently, eventually, not with a bang or a giant crescendo, but with the jam winding itself down naturally as a swirl of effects remains, bringing “Guess I’ll Go Live on the Internet” through its last minute or so in a melodic trance still peppered with deep-mixed harmonica as it fades away.

One more time, the details. They are, in the end, what makes Sleeping Through the War such a special offering, and what most bring to light the creative growth, both since 2015 and over the last half-decade generally. All Them Witches have yet to stop moving forward from one release to the next, and though each of their albums speaks with its own voice — whether that’s the rawness of Dying Surfer Meets His Maker or the even-fuller realization of a collective vision here — the band have made themselves one of the most distinct acts of their generation with an influence that’s already begun to spread. Sleeping Through the War will insure it only continues to do so, and with its memorable songwriting, natural warmth and far-ranging breadth, it delivers a resonance sure to ring out through 2017 and beyond.

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