The sound of No Witch is an emphatically bouncy amalgamation of folk, country, blues, and occasional sitar — all in service of the sort of loose rakishness one might associate with middle-aging punk. The slightly gruff, sneered, slurred and nasal vocals of Pete Quirk parade over acoustic and electric guitar licks that hop to and fro. The result is something like Iggy Pop playing a country hoedown. The always bouncy, never stilted rhythmic propulsion that cuts through No Witch gives a distinctive flair to a record that otherwise might sound like a game of spot the influence, drawing as it does upon the aesthetics of many easy if compelling references. Forming a trio composed of the former bassist of Pretty Girls Make Graves, and a singer and a drummer from two other short-lived, less distinguished indie rock groups, The Cave Singers spiritedly mix various styles of American roots music with a dash of snarl.
No Witch leads with its most straight-ahead country-folk moments, “Gifts and the Raft” and “Swim Club.” Jaunty folk picking abounds. Later, “Distant Sures” — with its pretty finger-picked guitar backed by a gentle wailing wall of country strings — could pass for an Iron and Wine recording. Most of the album, however, is characterized by quick but relatively minor tonal and stylistic shifts. On “Clever Creatures,” The Cave Singers are aging punk rockers back for a romantic rollick. “Haystacks” finds them playing a country-folk blues that nods to the Stones at the Beggar’s Banquet and Dylan closing at the Royal Albert Hall. Elsewhere — as on the tellingly named “Outer Realms” and “Faze Wave” — The Cave Singers seem to be reaching for the kind of otherworldly feel that eastern rhythmic tropes and raga-like melodic lines can bring to western folk-rock. On “Black Leaf,” The Cave Singers sound simply like Led Zeppelin, if a bit hoppier and less lumbering.
As these descriptions should suggest, none of the songs on No Witch grabs you on its own as a standout piece of songwriting. It’s less that the instrumentation and tones are structural veneers concealing merely passable songs and more that the record is just one extended riff on a host of roots music styles. It’s preferable, at least, to the adolescent narcissism too often dressed in the trappings of country and folk — styles whose incarnations are communal at heart, even if that’s only manifested in the allusive, traditional quality of the way one expresses personal heartbreak. To be sure, The Cave Singers third full-length is no tour de force, but it emerges in a newly hospitable musical climate. Neither as glossy or grandiose as countrified contemporary rockers Mumford and Sons (anyone for a Lifehouse folkdance?) nor as effervescently harmonic as Fleet Foxes, The Cave Singers may still be able to ride the coattails of those and similar acts through this moment’s beard-and-flannel revival.