Downy Mildew is one of those bands whose name approximates its sound, a sound that remains forever tied to a particular place and time: post-paisley underground Los Angeles in the R.E.M.-jangled ’80s. To that basic psychedelifolk construction, the group adds large helpings of 4ADism, arriving at a drenched, delicate and beauteously murky brand of California goth-pop.
For a bunch of musicians so enamored of whispers, echoes and atmospheres, Downy Mildew is at its best stripped down. The oceanic wash of distorted guitar blasts, tensile lead lines and slow-building rhythmic crashes provides darkness and depth — but only when the songwriting is solid. On both Broomtree and Mincing Steps, that usually occurs when co-vocalist and guitarist Charlie Baldonado steps to the front. His skeletal acoustic-driven rockers (“Sally Pt. III,” “Burnt Bridges,” “Tangled Ladders”) offer a dash of verve and hookery amidst the crystalline instrumentation, while guitarist Jenny Homer’s dreamy vocal support completes the band’s hallmark yin/yang effect. Things get more tangled when the roles are reversed: Homer’s best material (“The Kitchen,” “Good Dream,” both on Broomtree) stirs nicely, with a light and languid melodicism, but she also gets lost in abstract sonority and wandering introspection. Downy Mildew’s lyrics are rarely an issue, since sonic ambience takes precedence over the wistful, naturalistic imagery. Broomtree is the better of the first two albums, and the High Street CD tacks on the four-song debut. Mincing Steps features strings (by the incoming Salvador Garza), a harder drummer (ex-Leaving Train John Hofer) and a more subdued art-folk feel, but the songwriting is not as strong.
Ending a gap interrupted only by one 7-inch for the punk label Triple X (produced by Andy Gill, of all people), the quintet reemerged on High Street, the singer/songwriter- oriented subsidiary of Windham Hill. Triple A (Album Adult Alternative) radio hadn’t quite exploded yet, but that’s the kind of niche both band and label must have been eyeing, and rightfully so. Unfortunately — or perhaps inevitably — An Oncoming Train has the impact of anything but. There’s not a snappy song to be found, and the band’s once-entrancing palette has been drained of its complexity and oddness. What’s left are airy slow-tempo ditties (mostly sung by Homer) and plain-vanilla jangling and chirping. The Elevator EP culls one of the better album tracks and the A-side of the Triple X 45 (“Cool Nights”) with two fine covers: a faithful, breathily choral take on Brian Wilson’s “‘Til I Die” and a wiry live version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane.”
Slow Sky, then, ranks as a full-on comeback. Perhaps the band was re-energized by its new rhythm section: bassist Janine Cooper, who came aboard when founding member Nancy McCoy was finally lost to motherhood, and drummer Rob Jacobs, who’d taken over from Hofer somewhere in the middle of the previous record. Or perhaps it’s just the lilting songs, which, while still as precious as can be, are satisfyingly dramatic, with precise arrangements of ringing guitars, complementary vocals and somber strings (four additional players join violinist Garza). “Machine” is both ominous and shamelessly poppy, while slow tunes like “A Polka Dot-Scarved Woman” trade in opacity for bleakly gorgeous minimalism. Other standouts include Baldonado’s haunting (and lyrically striking) “A Liar Needs a Good Memory” and Homer’s first toe-tapper, the strumming and playful “Left Foot Down.”