Thursday, 4 March 2010

Kathryn Williams - The Quickening Album Review (2010)

Ever since Little Black Numbers was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2000 the world has been waiting for Kathryn Williams to make another truly great album. The follow-up Old Low Light and 2005’s Over Fly Over reinforced the notion that Williams is slowly but steadily moving further away from the wide-eyed innocence and teasing innuendo of her sophomore work. Only the cover-song project Relations has brought out the quality and depth, thanks to a mature and less than obvious choice of pieces, but also due to musical proficiency and a genuine love of the material. Since then, and with Williams still not a household name, it feels like she is now further away, from where she wants to be, than ten years ago.

The Quickening (the term for the stage of pregnancy when a foetus begins to move in the womb) is a different approach for Williams. In the search for spontaneity, but still trying to capture the feel of a ‘band’ experience, the album was spawned from a collection of completed songs and a group of musicians, most of whom had not heard a note before entering the studio. The songs were recorded live, usually in less than a few takes and the whole process took less than a week. And the quest for a new direction away from the more obvious regime has paid off.

The core of The Quickening is beautifully familiar. After the impressive dark opener 50 White Lines, which with it’s cold stark voice-under (predictably counting up from one to fifty as a strong metaphor for a life of touring) sounds like a Lemon Jelly remix, Just A Feeling leaps and rolls like a Nick Drake masterpiece: “sad songs don’t sound so sad in the sun…”. Brilliant musicianship from all involved, especially Williams who finds incredible power from soft vocals. Wanting and Waiting is a superb love-song centred round the 9 to 5 grind: “The city between us feels big and wide as a mountain range” is gorgeous delivery and song writing. Likewise the awful pun-titled Noble Guesses is exactly what you expect, with a simple gliding chorus, and more wonderful piano/guitar combination. Into the last minute and the voice layering stutters slightly but soon recovers. This is the bread and butter.

But not all of The Quickening is typical and safe. Just Leave is the real sound of progress as Williams is well out of her shell with spectacular effect. Musically the odd, oscillating, often spooky, music contemplates the lifted vocals and piano. Another excellent song. A different side of Williams arrives with the duo of Cream of the Crop and There are Keys. Both are the right side of easy listening, fused with sultry jazz, without the need for a big band. The former has a wonderful Alison Moyet-esque vocal performance matched by an equally perfect backing, cumulating with an atmospheric xylophone solo followed by an exquisite final minute. Five minutes of pleasant surprise. The former takes the same concept and blends in more dark depths. Up North continues the darkness, a sinister folk lament filled with a plethora of ideas, none of which get in each others way. And closer Starlings ends where we began. This is nothing more than the idea of The Unthanks singing over a reading of the Shipping Forecast. New, interesting and mesmerising.

Only on a few occasions does the album lapse. Winter Is Sharp is overtly folk with delicate dual vocals and melody over spiky guitars and strings. The short Black Oil is a glimpse of something much bigger, as if Williams discarded the first three minutes and distilled and refined what was left into less than a minute and a half. Little Lesson kind of works thanks to an upbeat foot-stomping arrangement but Williams’ vocals are way too high. A shame as it could have been an immediate highlight. It also doesn’t really go anywhere and could fill out into a massive rousing anthem involving the whole band. Maybe if Guy Garvey was producing…

With The Quickening , Kathryn Williams has breathed new life into her music. The new approach has produced one of her best albums, simply due to the diversity and forced pressure bringing energy and quality to often wonderful songs from a talented wordsmith. Yes it’s dark and moody and light and breezy. Exactly where Williams should be going. And now ten years after the impressive album that got her noticed, The Quickening is back in that beguiling, introspective world that we loved in the first place. To risk a cliché, this is a real and honest return to form.

-- CS

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