They might not actually be from the desert (in fact they’re from Nashville, TN), but that doesn’t mean All Them Witches haven’t channelled the heat, aridity and all the weirdness normally associated such a landscape and front-loaded it onto their fourth full-length album, Sleeping Through The War.
This time no introductions get made: none are really necessary – the band had already long-since established itself through a succession of well-received albums. From the moment stylus sinks into vinyl, All Them Witches simply throw those listening in head-first and concentrate on presenting a so thoroughly unique experience that it really doesn’t matter if we take or leave it – it is just there before us. That doesn’t mean trying to keep up with the band as the record plays is always the simplest thing, but the way the vinyl presents itself definitely has a hypnotizing quality about it.
As soon as stylus meets vinyl and the record’s A-side opens, “Bulls” hits the ground stomping and will instantly have listeners’ undivided attention. There, singer/multi-instrumentalist Charles Michael Parks Jr. just erupts with an understated menace while drummer Robbie Staebler, keyboardist Allan Van Cleave and guitarist Ben McLeod set up a loud chorus/soft verse dynamic which methodically presents an almost tidal movement. Words like “epic,” “bombastic” and “monumental” all leap to mind as one attempts to characterize it, but none quite does the sound justice.
After “Bulls” blows the doors open on Sleeping Through The War, “Don’t Bring Me No Coffee” continues the spectacular, sort-of-stoned and just-to-the-left-of-QOTSA tone which is equal parts “surly” and “silly.” There, the measured and mathy discipline that the band showcases is incredible to observe as all members clamp to a stop around the song’s title lyric and then stomp-swagger forth petulantly to the next hard stop.
That sort of delivery is guaranteed to get attention in its own right, but the aspect of the track which really promises to launch it over the top is the pairing of frustration and reserve which was obviously in place as the proverbial tape rolled – or else the track would just be a gooey mess. Parks’ vocal performance rocks on a knife-edge between almost yowling like a lunatic (he never quite gets there, but the temptation is clear) and whimpering like a sullen teenager (the way the singer spits the words “It ain’t even close!” is of the sort which schools have been built before) and, coupled with the magma-in-a-bottle guitar tone as well as the drum performance, establishes “Don’t Bring Me No Coffee” as the next step forward in the tradition of hardcore headcases once set and established by bands like The Jesus Lizard and Big Black – it’s awesome.
Unfortunately,the closest thing to a single on Sleeping Through The War, “Bruce Lee,” feels like an almost mawkish effort because it’s so comparatively light but, happily, “3-5-7” is able to resolve that fault by grinding out a great ode to unstable mental health (this critic’s favorite line remains “I follow you home for no reason/ Nothing there reminds you of me”) before closing the side with the last stoned reach toward sanity, “Am I Going Up?” There, the band sounds understandably exhausted from the exertion which preceded the song as they drag almost languidly along but the weirdness which frames the track – the odd little sounds and moments of disjointed dialogue – make it impossible to turn away from and will have listeners waiting right by their turntables for the second the song ends and the stylus lifts so they can flip the record and seamlessly see what the B-side holds for them.
After having experienced the megalithic, stoned crunch which was basically all of Sleeping Through The War‘s A-side, listeners will be surprised to discover the much more freely tuned point at which the album’s B-side begins with “Alabaster.” There, Staebler puts down the heavier sticks which had clearly been used on the album’s A-side and lays down some lighter, jazzier fills which makes for a very urbane frame on which McLeod hangs a few low-key, near-ambient lines and Van Cleave adds some synths only for color. The understated presence here is simply about as different as it’s possible to get from what listeners found on the album’s flipside, but many may find that the change is a welcome one; they may find that absorbing the much craftier tones and the spoken word form that the vocals take on very easy, and even welcome upon repeated listens.
The attractive, comparatively offbeat and smooth form first set forth by “Alabaster” endures through “Cowboy Kirk” (which also keeps up the tradition of longer song lengths that the opening track of the B-side featured), and goes deep into the desert with “Internet” – the side’s closer. Some readers might assume that, because the B-side songs are longer than those found on the A-, it must be a comparative letdown but nothing could be further from the truth; the more manic nature of the album’s A-side and more laidback nature of the B- make perfect foils for each other and show just how far All Them Witches are able to pursue their muse.
Standing back from it – after one has gone front-to-back with Sleeping Through The War – there’s just no denying that All Them Witches’ fourth album is their best to date. Here, the band has boldly attempted several different angles from which to approach their music and proven their mettle by not just pulling them off individually, but by presenting them together as a solid wholeas well. Some of the longer-reaching extremes may stand out to some critics as awkward or seem like strange choices on their own, but they make for an excellent, daring, dark and beautiful mosaic when they’re combined. If they keep it up, some day Sleeping Through The War will be seen as the album which came when the going got great for All Them Witches.
(New West Records)