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Music Review: Kathryn Williams – The Quickening

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A summer’s day and The Quickening by Kathryn Williams has left me chilled to the point of drifting into a satisfyingly deep, and refreshingly relaxed state. However mellow this state of mind may be, it left me reflecting on the truth of the first line of the track: “Just A Feeling.” More on that later.

The Quickening is the eighth album from the Liverpool-born acoustic folk singer/songwriter. It is now available in North America via One Little Indian Records. Recorded in the Bryn Derwen studio in North Wales, it will set the scene nicely for the forthcoming re-release of her 2004 covers collection Relations, which will be available this Autumn on the same label.

Her decision to release an album of songs by other artists back then may have surprised those who have heard Kathryn’s own writing. After all, she has been described by Time Out magazine as “one of Britain’s finest singer songwriters and by The Guardian newspaper as “one of the most singular voices in British music.”

“I suppose I decided to do a covers album to help me fall in love with music again.” Well on the strength of what has come since, it certainly worked. The Quickening, released six years later, sees Kathryn producing some of her most poignant moments to date.

“It has a mood”, she says, a slightly sinister palette with lyrics that are raw.” Certainly the track “Black Oil” could hardly be more relevant following the ongoing natural disaster occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the song has been regularly aired on local TV and radio stations, quickly gathering momentum as the oil spill reeks its havoc.

Kathryn and the label One Little Indian are donating 100% of their collective proceeds from the track to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC).

However strong a subject matter, it’s not just “Black Oil” that will grab the attention. The 12 tracks that comprise The Quickening see Kathryn’s increasingly reflective writing radiate a sometimes disarming honesty. “I see myself in the songs a lot, whereas before I invented characters” she reveals leaving you reaching for the album’s beautifully produced sleeve.

Last year, on Eurorock, I had the pleasure of reviewing her joint project with guitarist Neill MacColl with the album Two. For The Quickening, she is once again joined by the David Gray guitarist, along with many other quality musicians including renowned guitarist Leo Abrahams, who has worked with Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Ed Harcourt, and Paul Simon, to name but a few.

The album was recorded in just four days with no more than three takes for any one track. “None of the musicians had heard the songs,” she explains, “but I had sent them the lyrics. I wanted the musicians to play it without trying to emulate demos, to create a newness, a blindness and a trust.”

With that in mind it is clear that the album evolved like invisible ink on a page splashed with water. Slowly the songs emerged, radiating a freshness and honesty as each one grabbed hold of life.

Kathryn’s delicate vocals disguise the darker clouds that can exist within her work. Uncompromising in her writing this album delivers a set that has the rain clouds gathering above. It opens with the superb “50 White Lines” a song of the hypnotic loneliness of the road.

The aforementioned “Just A Feeling” explains something of Kathryn’s music in its opening line as Kathryn breathes “sad songs don’t sound so sad in the sun.” It shows how I was misled lying there in the glow of a summers day.

Sure enough, rain clouds gather in the richly flavoured “Winter Is Sharp”. Meanwhile, a delightfully delicate “Wanting And Waiting” leads to the poignant “Black Oil.” “Just Leave” captures the tangibly solid void that can develop between two people.

A hauntingly perfect stripped down opening for “Smoke” creates an atmosphere that is exactly what the title says. The late night reflection of “Cream Of The Crop” leads to the strange landscape created within “There Are Keys.”

Deceptively powerful lyrics set within delicate, sometimes fragile frames. “Noble Guesses” arrives with a positive air introducing (I hope I’m right) Russian inventor Dmitri Mendeleev, who “was sick of trying” until Kathryn reveals with an inspiring positivity that “dreams are where inventions sleep.”

“Little Lesson” and “Up North” complete the highly satisfying picture. Yes, “sad songs don’t sound so sad in the sun,” and as I play this late at night after, let us say a challenging day, the album evolved into something far more complex.

That is the secret mystery within the craft of the gifted Kathryn Williams, and this album is perhaps her best example of it yet.

More details can be found on Kathryn’s official website.

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