July 2003

Orchard 802529
Released: 2003

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

The cover of Weak’s first, self-titled disc is an out-of-focus photo of brightly colored flowers. The back cover is an ominous negative color exposure of a cityscape. Together, those images capture pretty well the brooding, psychedelic pop music inside the CD case. Weak is Antony Widoff, who has worked in some capacity for David Bowie and U2 and composed music for film, television, theater, and dance. He’s also created a multimedia installation called "Growing Up Now," which you can read about on his website.

A quick glance at Mr. Widoff’s bio ("…[he] has tortured himself for years to make music and multimedia that issues from the heart of this tragic time") might leave you with the impression that he’s too smart and precious for his own good. He’s smart, all right, and we can be thankful because he’s created a disc of exceptionally intelligent pop music. While he’s consciously avant-garde, he doesn’t let that fact overwhelm his remarkable grasp of song structure or his enchanting feel for melody.

Widoff’s gift for creating atmosphere is the key to this disc. He uses electronic keyboards and guitar effects to create beautifully evocative accompaniment to his songs. "Anxiety" mixes a calliope-like keyboard and a fuzz-toned, tremolo guitar that sounds like it was lifted from the '60s television series "The Prisoner." Weak is filled with an array of unusual sounds -- springy percussion, processed keyboards, tape loops, and doctored guitars. Widoff humanizes technology, particularly drum machines, and because his music is so utterly contemporary, even the things he recycles from the past sound up to the minute.

He’d probably be appalled to have it said of him, but Widoff’s a tunesmith. For all the strangeness of the overall sound of the disc, the songs stay with you. "What Brought Us Together" has the oddball hit potential of a Cure single, and "Wide World" kept popping into my head for days. Widoff is absolutely sure of where he’s going with these songs. There’s tremendous intelligence behind the elements used to construct each track, and the disc is filled with goodies that require you to listen sharply. A thumping synth-bass anchors "Wide World," but all manner of swirling keyboards and echoplexed guitars dart in and out.

Weak includes an arrangement of "Here, There, and Everywhere" (the disc’s only cover) that shows Widoff’s appreciation for songcraft. He won’t make you forget the original, but he demonstrates how a musician with a unique sound in his head can make a song his own while and not sacrifice the things that make it memorable. He approaches his own songs in the same manner, rarely letting his playfulness with the instrumentation get out of hand.

Widoff played all the instruments on Weak, which, along with its home-studio sound, reinforces his image as an eccentric recluse. Kenny Siegel produced the disc and recorded it at his studio, Old Soul. The DIY feel is intentional -- I e-mailed Fang Records about the recording, and Widoff himself informed me that he started to remix it for better audio quality, but he felt he was losing some of the overall mood. While a big-studio approach might have brightened things up or defined some elements in the recording, I never really felt I was missing anything. Widoff’s vocals are in razor-sharp focus, and overall the sound is very clean, if at times a little busy.

Widoff brings a sense of humor to his use of old technology here, especially the drums machines and rhythm boxes, which he makes no attempt to disguise as anything but the clunky artifacts they are. These light touches keep the disc from becoming too pretentious. On some songs ("Anxiety," "Regrets") his voice sounds strained and somewhat mannered, but it’s the right choice for those songs. On other tracks he sounds more relaxed, but he always uses his voice in the context of the overall atmosphere of the song.

There’s something almost fragile about Weak. Although I’d love to hear what Widoff would do with a bigger recording budget, I think this disc is the result of Widoff pushing his vision past the limits imposed on him. He deserves a wide audience, and his songwriting is so unique that it could even transcend major-label support. This could be the beginning of a beautiful career.