True Widow sounds on first listen like a band from frigid climes -- its music a soundtrack for long, snowed-in nights. That the slowcore band (the members prefer the term "stonegaze") is from Dallas, then, comes as something of a surprise. A city that historically played host to country music almost exclusively, and more recently spawned groups like The Polyphonic Spree and The Old 97s, is an unlikely spot for a band playing Low-style relaxed rock with a plodding, dark edge.
Drummer Timothy Starks (a.k.a. Slim -- all the members have stage names) has a theory on the band's sound: "I work in the same warehouse where we practice and Dan [Phillips, the band's guitarist and singer] works down the road, and when we'd both be having a slow, rainy day at work, he'd come by and we'd both blow off work and play. It had that rainy-day, lazy-day vibe, I guess -- we don't get a lot of cold weather in Dallas, but maybe it's that rainy-day thing coming through."
True Widow was formed in 2007 by former Slowride singer Phillips, who'd recently returned to Dallas from a foray into New England life. After playing a bit with Starks and other musicians, Phillips scoured about for a woman vocalist and player, settling on Nicole Estill (Niki Cage), who plays bass in the band. The three aren't necessarily of the same mind musically, but bring their own interests into the band to create its signature sound. "We've all got our own avenues," Starks explains, "but somehow we merged them into a three-lane mega-highway, I guess."
The band released its self-titled debut to positive reviews as 2009 approached. The record keeps a steady, slow pace, but ranges from dark to simply subdued -- even using a downright poppy combination of chords in a sunny number that is, in the interest of keeping things dour, called "Flat Black."
Guitarist Phillips has a natural, relaxed voice. A slight Southern drawl comes through when he (necessarily, as this is slowcore) elongates vowels, dragging short lyrical thoughts out across several bars. Estill's vocals are airy and sleepy but confident, and when the two harmonize, magic happens (and more Low comparisons are provoked).
With song titles like "Corpse Master" and "Bleeder," True Widow plays up its noir vibe. As with dark jazz combos like Bohren & der Club of Gore, or improv outfits like those that James Plotkin puts together, the band comes off as a product of musicians who have gone to extremes with their sound and then reined it back in, keeping the aesthetic of punk or metal while exploring more nuanced music. (Phillips' old group, Slowride, was a decidedly fast-paced punk band.)
Besides the aesthetic, the underpinnings of True Widow's songs also exhibit a dark spirit. Estill's bass lines and the low work on Phillips' oft-downtuned guitar roll with half-step changes and minor chords, even as the vocals and lead-guitar parts turn toward the light. The interplay creates a beautiful disconnect: mildly creepy and disconcerting undertones and more straightforward melodies.
Starks agrees that the band's sound isn't necessarily common around its home environs. "We're definitely in left field in Dallas," he explains. "It's always been a metal town, and of course blues and country, but as far as the indie stuff, a lot of people have been sticking to the formula of a few years ago. But a lot of the people in bands Dan knew from his days in Slowride are starting new bands now, and I think it's going to be an exciting time for the Dallas scene in the next couple years."
Despite being a three-piece, True Widow has a full sound, thanks to the fuzzed-out bass and distorted guitar, which bring up the "stoner" end of the "stonegaze" equation. With Phillips and Estill both contributing vocals, all the necessary duties are fulfilled by three players, creating an organic atmosphere. While they've discussed adding a player before, Starks says they're largely satisfied at three: "The core of True Widow is really the simplicity of it."
True Widow with German Shepherd and Onodrim. 7:30 p.m. Sun., June 27. ModernFormations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $7. All ages. 412-362-0274 or www.modernformations.com