Artists // Sour Widows

Maia Sinaiko and Susanna Thomson like to joke that they are delusional about Sour Widows, the Bay Area band they started seven years ago that is just now releasing its entrancing and powerful debut LP, Revival of a Friend. After all, during those seven years, Sinaiko, Thomson, and Sour Widows have survived a litany of tragedies and tribulations. Sinaiko lost a partner to accidental overdose just before the band began. Thomson’s mother was diagnosed with a rare cancer, which she lived with for four years before passing away in June 2021. As they prepared to enter Oakland’s Tiny Telephone in 2023 to make an album partly of songs about navigating those losses and the lives they shaped, more troubles mounted, including a traumatic breakup and Thomson’s father’s sudden cancer diagnosis. Looking back, they can only laugh at these hurdles and wonder if they should have taken them as signs—to stop, to start over, to succumb to the hardship.

Absolutely not: Sour Widows has served as an essential outlet for Sinaiko, Thomson, and drummer Max Edelman, a way to process real-time woes so as to transmute them into something beautiful, useful, real, and lasting. It has been an anchor, too, keeping them lashed to reality as the world roiled around them. Revival of a Friend is their collective testament to that process, an hour-long lesson in endurance that is years in the making. Inspired by the folk singing of their youth, the grit and grace of Joni Mitchell, the slowly spiraling dazzle of Duster and Bedhead, and the steady angularity and sudden snarl of Slint, Revival of a Friend fully recognizes the arbitrary cruelty of individual existence and finds that some of the best ways beyond it are to share harmonies, a tangle of electric guitars, or a song that simply imagines hope somewhere on the other side. Methodically built over many years with longtime friend and trusted drummer Max Edelman, this is a poignant and gripping record about the pain of growing up and getting on with it.

That delusion—if that’s what you want to call Sour Widows’ self-belief—stems from a bond Sinaiko and Thomson formed amid the relative innocence of early adolescence. They met as teenagers at Camp Winnarainbow, the legendary and long-running circus- and performing-arts camp in Northern California founded by Wavy Gravy and Jahanara Romney. They penned their first tune together in a songwriting workshop and kept in touch after summer’s end, visiting one another and sharing new, largely acoustic numbers that they’d often arrange for three voices with another pal. In the Summer of 2017, when they finally found themselves living near one another, they became on-again, off-again roommates and ever-devoted bandmates, eventually inviting Edelman, who joined after seeing the duo’s first show ever, to expand the sound. They helped one another through and across those aforementioned hurdles and into these complicated but compulsive songs.

This bond is ever-apparent throughout Revival of a Friend, where the vocal and instrumental kinship Sinaiko and Thomson have feels blood-born and instinctual. Along with bassist Timmy Stabler, who’s now played with Sour Widows for five years, they meticulously mapped the tempos for almost every song with Edelman, adding near-undetectable rhythmic variations to give the songs the same lived-in, elastic feeling in the studio that they’ve developed onstage. Edelman brings a perfect mix of force and finesse to these songs, as if he’s transcribing the tumult of life in real time.

That chemistry also radiates in the way they sing together. “The pain and the sunny day/The severed flower, the saturation,” they moan during the gorgeous “Initiation,” written in the wake of Thomson’s mother’s death. Their bright but cracking harmonies illustrate the lyrical paradox, where hurt can bloom even in a heavenly setting. Captured in righteous detail by engineer and producer Maryam Qudus, an invaluable member of these sessions, Thomson’s 1972 Ibanez Custom Agent and Sinaiko’s 1989 Gibson SG sound made to mirror one another. The pair’s largely self-taught approach again suggests they are here to support each other. They move through “Shadow of a Dove” like they are dancing together, delicate beginnings yielding to paroxysms that subside only when they’ve let the anxiety out.

These moments of mutual uplift thread through most every song during Revival of a Friend. Written as an elegy to the partner Sinaiko lost in 2017 and the memories they made during a road trip to Chicago, the stirring “I-90” corrals the rest of the band into the car, supporting Sinaiko as they deal with the sting of an irretrievable past. Thomson’s finale, “Staring into Heaven/Shining,” deals with the self-interest inherent in losing someone, in trying to imagine yourself in a world where someone dear exists only in the past tense. The quartet reaches the end with epiphanic might, as if they’re plowing a path toward the future. They fade out tenderly, vowing to hold onto and hold up one another, come what may.

However pervasive it is, grief is not the only takeaway on Revival of a Friend. Sinaiko, Thomson, and Edelman are still here, after all, in a great DIY rock band that is a gathering of best friends, having made a mighty record that encapsulates and so sublimates all this anguish. “Will you love me through this?” Sinaiko and Thomson sing together as lead single “Cherish” careens from its overdriven crescendo into an elegant finale about looking for love, trust, and salvation. It is a righteous call for help from our communities that feels necessary right now, in a timeline riven by wars and injustices and upheavals driven by a powerful few who seem to see loss as a casual side-effect. It feels especially relevant that it emerges as a work of friendship from the Bay Area, dominated in recent years not by stories of the arts but instead by technology and the inequality it has wrought there. Revival of a Friend is rooted in personal hurts, but it feels like an invitation to band together and work through our pains as one, to share the burdens of the world until we can find a better way forward. This is not delusion; this is hope, as difficult and necessary now as ever.

photo credit: Jaxon Whittington