Filed under: album, review | Tags: kathryn williams, matt barton, the quickening
The Quickening ••••
One Little Indian
There seems to be a general consensus that artists, in particular singer-songwriters, produce their best work near the beginnings of their career; Kathryn Williams makes a good case for the opposition. The Quickening, her seventh album – or eighth if you count her collaboration with Neill MacColl on Two – is perhaps her most accomplished work to date. Recorded mostly live, unrehearsed, over four days in a North Wales studio, The Quickening proves to be a fitting title, not only for the album’s speedy genesis but also for the brevity and succinctness of the songs themselves. They do not outstay their welcome, but neither are they insubstantial; Williams deftly gets the balance just right. And while it can be filed broadly under the acoustic folk bracket that would be home to the rest of her catalogue, there’s a healthy dose of experimentation in the writing and arrangements.
Williams herself attests that the record “has a mood, a slightly sinister palette with lyrics that are raw”, and ‘sinister’ turns out to be a surprisingly appropriate descriptor. Much of the album displays an eerie otherworldliness that provides a stark contrast with her unadorned English folk voice. Opener and first single ’50 White Lines’ is a travelogue of sorts, with a male voice counting down the numbers as Williams sings of the Bonnie and Clyde-style adventure of the touring musician’s life; the male voice takes a little getting used to, at first appearing a little like an annoying and unwelcome Spotify advert, but it’s an interesting touch. ‘Just A Feeling’, with its intricate guitar picking, moves things up a notch on the sinisterness scale; it’s outwardly relaxed and wistful, but there’s a dark storm brewing at its centre with wispy multitracked backing vocals and the reappearance of the marimbas from ’50 White Lines’. The poetic lyric “Sad songs don’t sound so sad in the sun / palm trees sway with minor chords” prompts the expected interesting – and satisfying – chord change, paving the way for Williams’s plaintive plea, “What if love is just a feeling?”
The traditionalist English folk of ‘Winter Is Sharp’ sounds like a lost sea shanty, with Williams intoning gloomily “Your ship never came back” over an acoustic arrangement incorporating accordion and ukulele that gradually builds and swirls with intensity. By contrast, ‘Wanting & Waiting’ provides a complete change in pace with a comparatively sunny, languorous folk-pop ode to the joys of a love affair. The scant interlude ‘Black Oil’, meanwhile, finds Williams taking a snapshot of a countryside field scene; she sings softly of “Birds head-to-toe in black oil” in an unaffected voice over deliberately placed piano chords; the effect is off-kilter and disorientating, reinforcing the tension that runs through so many of these songs.
‘Just Leave’ is a wonderfully realistic, mournful portrayal of a break-up over melancholy guitar and piano chords, with Williams, in one of her most charming vocal performances, repeating the titular phrase for maximum heartbreaking effect. The delicious ‘Smoke’, meanwhile, brings the percussion to the forefront of the mix; it’s a kind of noir oddity, undoubtedly striking and unique and one of the record’s wispiest numbers (and, structurally and sonically, one of its slightest). The jazzy sparseness of ‘Cream Of The Crop’, all atmospherics and bass and vibes, has a sexy trip-hop feel that, when tempered with Williams’s English folk delivery, is quite the enticing juxtaposition.
The downbeat mood continues with the portentous ‘There Are Keys’, whose spellbinding arrangement of strange effects, strings and reverb-drenched piano is perhaps the album’s loveliest and most bewitching song. From this startling composition Williams delights again with the storytelling brilliance of ‘Noble Guesses’ and the campfire song ‘Little Lesson’, a handclapping feelgood number that provides a welcome injection of something a little more jovial. Then it’s back to being moody and evocative on closer ‘Up North’, a song infused with an obviously baleful underlying feeling, communicated best by the pithy backing vocals, but also a sense of optimism that ends the album on a reflective and ultimately satisfying note.
Despite its quickly-recorded ethos and minimal-take approach, The Quickening is remarkably well executed and impresses as a strong, well-written piece of work. Williams is not a particularly strong lead singer, though she can belt it out if the occasion necessarily calls for it, but what she lacks in power she makes up for with some imaginative writing and arrangements. Rather than representing a major breakthrough, The Quickening is ultimately the blossoming of a cumulative effect of years of touring and recording; Williams sounds confident and at ease here, so much so that she can afford to experiment with some less obvious sounds and styles. It’s a satisfying listen and, in short, something of a triumph.
UK release date: 22/02/10; www.myspace.com/kathrynwilliams
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