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Music Review: Kathryn Williams – Relations

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Relations, the second release from British singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams this year, is due out next month. Originally available in 2004 as an import, it will be available in U.S. stores for the first time starting on October 12. Her earlier 2010 release,The Quickening, garnered a good deal of critical acclaim.

Writing for Blogcritics, Jeff Perkins said: “The 12 tracks that comprise The Quickening see Kathryn’s increasingly reflective writing radiate a sometimes disarming honesty.” Her voice has a distinctive ethereal sound, a quasi angelic quality that often disguises the underlying angst of her lyrics.

The world described in her music is not always as sweet as the voice that sings about it. In “50 White Lines,” the “road is alone, it’s still and it’s dark.” If she can drive through it, she can vanish. In “Just a Feeling,” she asks: “Is belief a scratch you’ve got to itch? What if love is just a feeling?” This is a world where love and belief may not be all they’re cracked up to be. It’s a world where “the winter is sharp” and “the harbor is dark.” In a song like “Cream of the Crop,” she can look to a love to pull her out of the funk, “of this bass line” she’s on, but to what kind of life. The overall impression of her world is bleak. Her music is grounded in a kind of existential angst.

Given such a distinctive point of view, it is interesting that for her second release of 2010, she chose to reissue her 2004 collection of covers. She says she chose to do a cover collection because she was in a cynical state of mind at the time.

A follow-up to her 2002 Old Low Light album was due to be recorded, and she didn’t want to go into the studio in that state of mind. She had been playing a gig in Regent’s Park, and there was some discussion about using a few of the covers from that concert along with some new ones for an EP. She began making a list of possibilities, and they grew and grew. Not always in the way they expected: she had thought Dylan, maybe; maybe John Lennon. Neither made the final cut. Sometimes, she says, “songs just choose you.”

The 14 songs that chose her are quite an eclectic bunch, not always what you would expect from an angst-ridden cynic. Highlights include Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with a mournful cello behind Williams’s crisp sweet melancholy vocal as it rises in passion. This is an iconic song, and Williams’s cover is masterful.

Her take on the bluesy Mae West track “A Guy What Takes His Time” is magic. There is a suggestive wink in her voice every bit as sexy as the brash and brassy original. Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang On to a Dream” is an understated lover’s lament. Simple, understated production is also the hallmark of her cover of the Bee Gees song “I Started A Joke.” This is an especially interesting contrast to the big orchestrations characteristic of the Gibbs in their glory.

Indeed, these clean simple arrangements are the ideal accompaniment for the crystal purity of Williams’s vocals. Whether it’s the catchy melody of The Byrds classic “The Ballad of Easy Rider” and Nico’s “These Days” or the pounding emphasis of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” she has a knack for making the song her own. There are covers of Neil Young, Big Star, Lee Hazelwood, Python Lee Jackson and The Velvet Underground as well, all with that low key approach that defines her music. You can see what I mean by eclectic, and really, there isn’t a dud in the bunch.

There is some question about whether an artist capable of writing songs like those on The Quickening should be spending one’s time covering the songs of other artists. Why not leave that to the singers who can’t write their own material? This is not an unreasonable position.

On the other hand, there is no end to the great singer/songwriters who have taken time out to cover the work of others and come up with magical recordings. Land that lies fallow for awhile, renews itself, and comes back is more productive than land that is constantly planted. Besides, who is there to say that you can’t do both? Kathryn Williams can do both, and she can do them well. Here’s hoping she keeps doing so.

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