Reviewed by Rob Bockman
Restoring Darkness (December 30th, 2014), Folktale Records
Folk, as a genre, is frequently described as “evolving,” when really what it does is reflect, from immigrant folkways to Depression field recordings to civil rights sing-alongs. It would be unfair to categorize California’s Whitman as “evolving,” as the band is far more concerned with the darker edges of natural processes—with the less-fit who’ve failed to survive—while never losing that same experiential thrust that makes folk music so resonant. On their fourth LP, Restoring Darkness, Whitman plays with that resonance, bridging elliptical folky instrumentation and gothic lyrics to create a hypnotic and assured tone poem. As all good folk music does, it creates a functional whole out of disparate influences, and does so with a lived-in hominess, even when vocalist and lyricist Christopher Payne is singing songs about erasure and eschatology.
A slightly-tweaked version of “Golden Days,” from 2012’s Sinking 7,” is paradoxically both fuzzier and clearer, matching the lyrics’ grasping for remembered intimacy through sensory reminiscence, which conclude “I’m reaching out/For anything/And coming up empty-handed.” That bleak desire that marks “Golden Days” runs throughout the record—in standout “Portland,” Payne sings “I want to see this city dead/Swallowed by a massive amount of flames/And I hope you’re the only one/Who dies in that blaze” over Rich Seymour’s sawing cello, seeking peace through apocalypse. Thorny album closer “Dresden” ends with a final blast of noise, then a scratchy outro that cycles in and out, sounding like cicadas and whispering dry grasses. The message is clear: the days are bright, but the nights are long and very, very dark.
Like the album, the actual record is carefully crafted and rewarding in its elaborate simplicity—a turquoise record in a woodcut-printed slipcase from Carolynn Pennypacker Riggs—and accolades are due to Los Angeles’ Folktales Records (it’s telling that the CD issue of Restoring Darkness is limited to 100 copies, while the vinyl pressing runs to 500 copies in three different colors). This isn’t idle praise—that kind of craftsmanship is what makes Whitman so appealing, and what makes folk music’s longevity well-deserved. Lives are short, as Payne underlines in the record, but life itself is long, which helps Whitman’s Southern California Gothic folk rise far above its grim focus to become something as clear as it is dark.
Tracks to Watch: “Portland,” “Blister,” “Dresden,” “Golden Days”
Tracks to Avoid: Opening one-two punch of “Darker Days” and “Departure” comes off as too brief and fragile to make much impact, making a uncharacteristic weak opening to a very solid record
Setting: Drop the needle on that one perfect equalized cusp between “light enough to read” and “too dark to walk through the house.”