March 31, 2009
Alexa Woodward | Speck
2009 | Constant Clip Recordings
With the recent shuttering of the old Knitting Factory (which was actually the new Knitting Factory, relocated after the first one closed), I guess you officially, finally, can no longer refer to someone as a “downtown” musician. I’ve often heard that term in reference to New York musicians who aren’t from here and don’t sound like they live here now, so now that there’s no “downtown” music scene (formally anyway), what do you call someone like Alexa Woodward – from Virginia and sounding something like a cool breeze set to music? Woodward’s easygoing second album, Speck, sounds like a mildly psychedelic Gillian Welch in a self-imposed artist’s retreat.
Too many local artists get in a studio and, for the first time, can finally overpower their songs with too many guitars, too many drums, too many harmonies. The resulting albums manage to overpower the songwriting and somehow pale in comparison to a solo acoustic performance. I am thrilled to say that Speck is not one of those albums. Populated almost entirely by Woodward’s simple and compelling banjo and uniquely vibrating alto/soprano singing, the uncluttered arrangements complement the songs without burying the compelling elements of the live solo show. Opener “Speck” gets to about the two-minute mark with just voice and banjo, and then a single harmony, acoustic guitar, and singing saw unfold into the track out of nowhere. It’s a neat trick – before the other instruments come in, the listener is almost fooled into thinking he or she is listening to somebody’s paltry demo. Later, on “Jimmy,” Woodward’s banjo is accompanied by some super-tasteful mandolin and low-in-the-mix (like, Mazzy Star low-in-the-mix) string bass.
Lyrically, Woodward leans a little too close to coffeeshop, diary-entry confessionals for my taste. I feel like there’s not as much going on in the narrative as there should be. I’d like to hear a little more about what life’s like in the city from a new transplant, and I don’t feel like she quite gets there. The glaring exception to this rule is on “Plants,” in which Woodward describes what it’s like to live in a house with twenty five roommates. The description of all the different roommates’ various activities, keeping things moving in the house much like things keep moving out in the city, is a near-perfect convergence of the country-raised girl with the city-based performer. The tune climaxes with a joyous sing-along chorus that sounds like all roommates present just bashed into the room and started harmonizing while the recording was going on. And this is where Alexa Woodward, and Speck, ultimately succeed. By making an album that sounds like an impromtu show in your living room, Woodward has united the relaxed feeling of sitting on the porch with the econo-necessities of making an album in the city.
by Brook Pridemore