I might be the least qualified among us to review this album, for no reason other than folk music is a genre that has, for the most part, completely escaped me. And at it’s heart, that’s what Alexa Woodward’s first album, Speck, is. But at the same time, it’s a bit more than that. It’s a quiet, contemplative record full of lovely harmonies, soothing melodies and some really killer banjo work. And as a hardcore bluegrass fan, I loves me some banjo.
The New York City-based Woodward’s voice, a dulcet, versatile tool, is almost hypnotic. Her notes carry a beautiful timbre throughout the album, and while the album’s overall sound isn’t always terribly varied, her voice is really what you come for. Backed by numerous Austin musicians on some tracks, the combination of banjo, guitars, and singing saw (played by Guy Forsyth), the instrumentation is a gentle accompaniment to Woodward’s voice. They provide a sense of subtle, delicate atmosphere that serves as a perfect backdrop.
The album is an odd duck — it’s got some themes that should resonate with urban dwellers, but with country/folk music roots and influence. Thematically, it has moments of surprising grittiness, which serves as an unusual (in a good way) contrast for her lullaby-like sound.
As for the songs themselves, they’re startlingly sharp given the sweet-sounding voice. “Jimmy” is nothing short of a tale of urban woe. With an opening salvo of lyrics like “Jimmy was a wayward man / Laying in a white linen bed / Broke his back in a rooftop fall / Doing so much blow / He couldn’t see at all,” it quickly establishes itself as a genuine heartbreaker of a song. Her sumptuous voice continues to twist through incongruous themes, as it continues with “I wish I had known him when / He was still too young for sin / I’d have taken all his kindling / Kept it dry for burning.”
My personal favorite is, unsurprisingly, “Boston” (Woodward’s a fan of one-word titles, which I have a strange respect for). Lyrically, it’s a beautiful, cryptic piece of poetry, but I mainly love it for the second iteration of the chorus, when her voice really has a chance to soar (“On the bus to Boston / with the scarlet turning leaves / I resolved to make my bed / with my better history”).
The only catch with Woodward’s album is that despite her excellent songwriting and captivating voice, her songs are all similar in style and sound. But then again, folk singers don’t kill you with their variety. They kill you with their lyrics, and their heart and soul. Woodward’s got that in spades.