BEST OF 2015: 19. Kathryn Williams ‘Hypoxia’

Nine albums into a solo career that has rarely been anything other than thoroughly captivating, Kathryn Williams delivers a short, succinct and staggering record inspired by the work of Sylvia Plath. Initially responding to a commission for the Durham Book Festival’s celebration of the writer’s work in 2013, Williams found herself unable to escape the world of Plath’s sole novel, ‘The Bell Jar’, feeling compelled to give voice to events and characters she hadn’t touched on in the five songs she completed for the original literary event.

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Having often been repurposed as a totem for teenage angst in recent years, the stark and cold tone of her sole novel ‘The Bell Jar’ was something of a shock upon re-reading. Plath’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, Esther Greenwood, became the central character for ‘Hypoxia’. While the record could easily stand tall without the need for any back-story, once such details are applied, it becomes a quite remarkable listen.

At just shy of thirty minutes, its length belies the considerable emotional heft of these nine songs. Williams’ capacity to get under the skin of her very particular subject matter is consistently striking. Plath captures Esther’s reflections on mortality and existence when attending the funeral of a school friend who has taken her own life rather beautifully: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” On ‘Beating Heart’, Williams uses that short second sentence as a delicate refrain in a lyric about contemplating suicide. When it is repeated, in muffled, drifting fashion, in the song’s final section, the lump in the throat is hard to shift.

There are moments when the mood swings, such as the ten seconds before the final chorus of ‘Cuckoo’, where malevolence, frustration and despair rise out of the more subtle hints delivered by the song’s unsettling piano chords. Written from the perspective of Esther’s mother, it is a staggering piece that possesses an affectingly conflicted ache. The final song to be written, and in collaboration with producer Ed Harcourt, it is one of the finest moments in this underrated artist’s wonderful songbook.

Despite this, the track on ‘Hypoxia’ that most resolutely leaves its mark is ‘Tango With Marco’, drawing on a disturbing chapter from ‘The Bell Jar’ where a night out dancing on a first date mutates into an attempted rape. Williams conjures an eerily detached musical backdrop for a lyric that is delivered with her customary clarity and precision. When the line “If I shout out in pain, you call it a good fuck” is left to linger just prior to the chorus, the sense of anger and contempt is palpable. By inhabiting and responding to a genuinely significant work of literature, Williams has produced her own spellbinding piece of art.

BEST OF 2013: 3. Kathryn Williams – Crown Electric

I love those moments when you hear a song for the very first time and know instantly that it will become one of your absolute favourites. Not just ears pricking up at a neat bit of melody, but full-blown ‘I must hear that again instantly’ mania. I’ve always liked Kathryn Williams‘ music – most of it is sitting in the racks behind me as I write this – but I’ll confess that I clicked on the link to what was to be the teaser for this album expecting something nice. Williams possesses a genuinely beautiful voice and has recorded some great stuff across her previous nine studio albums, but I’d never felt compelled to run around telling everyone about her. Until now. ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ is a track that deserves to be heard and, inevitably thereafter, loved. The swooping strings, gentle propulsion of the drums, ornate guitar plucking and utterly flawless vocal combine to form something euphorically great. When the backdrop falls away for the middle eight, Williams sings “all the fishes in the sea; I cast my net, you chose me.” This gentle twist on the time worn cliche, where the speaker is both the chooser and the chosen, is one of many delicately brilliant moments across this magnificent album.

The frequent but not oppressive use of strings has nods to The Beatles, Nick Drake and, most delightfully, the sonic palette of ‘Sea Change’ by Beck. Such augmentation can so often be used as a dreary shortcut for emotional heft, but here the strings seem to ache and swoon like backing vocalists, an essential part of the songs and their impact. The spaciously lavish ‘Sequins’ sweeps and ripples around, appearing to offer release and optimism. It strikes a triumphant note of “winning the years” but listen closely and it appears to be coming from the perspective of someone in a coma. The concluding lines “when I finally die, put sequins on my eyes” will move the initial joy to a curiously consuming sympathy.

The weary resignation of ‘Monday Morning’ takes a well-worn trope and manages to capture the gentle futility of wishing the days away and wondering what difference it all makes anyway. The naggingly hummable chorus gives way to a middle eight of da-da-da-da-da-da-da-ing that offers velvety respite from the humdrum horrors of the working week. Another moment of emotional connection comes with a slight wail near the end of ‘Darkness Light’. The lyric in the chorus “sometimes there are shadows that I have to fight, you can make the darkness bright,” is delivered several times, each repetition of the word ‘shadows’ getting slightly more feverish until its final appearance seems to rise out of the line and attack the shadows for their hold on people. It’s a stunning song, which seems hopeful, resilient but bearing the scars of the fight. It is one of three here crafted in conjunction with Ed Harcourt, who also lends his voice to ‘Morning Twilight’.

‘Picture Book’ opens in blunt fashion which will floor you, Williams’ voice seeming to be summoned deep from within as she quietly, slowly intones “I’ve heard people say they like me and then laugh when I fail.” The mood soon lifts as the songs goes on to explore what people are really like below the way they project themselves, the picture book coming to represent the person within. The reflections on humanity and how we deal with our challenges that run throughout this album make it such an easy collection to keep returning to, always something else to pick up on or identify with.

It continues to baffle me that this record wasn’t shouted about from all corners, receiving minimal coverage and barely registering in any of the end of year lists. Quite how magazines like Mojo and Uncut aren’t raving about what is, perhaps, the most classicist pop album of 2013, I’ll never know. Williams herself has spoken in several interviews about how she feels this is her best record, despite doubting her own releases in the past. And rightly so, as this is a collection of songs spared of filler, lacking a weak link and one which given a different set of circumstances would be selling several million copies.

Dancing About Architecture

Thought I might start posting up my reviews after they’ve long since been digested in print. This is partly for vanity and partly for the purpose of sharing what I (largely) believe to be some decent writing. I’ll begin with this post containing my shorter reviews from the January and February issues of Clash. I’ve already posted up my Tindersticks piece which originally appeared in the January issue. The rest are all below for your perusal. Thought for a second I was having another Green DayAmerican Idiot’ moment with the Marina and the Diamonds album, but a few reviews have appeared recently with a similar view to mine, so I’m not looking too renegade anymore for simply pointing out that it’s over-produced and too polished. It is, by the way. One last thing, the rating system is their requirement not mine and, occasionally, what appears hear may not match what appeared in print. I’ve had a few scores subbed down a point in the past and I’m sure it’ll happen again in the future.

Let’s get on with it then, shall we?

JANUARY 2010:

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THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – ‘Realism’ (NONESUCH)

After a brief foray into self-sabotage with 2008’s intentionally noisy ‘Distortion’, Stephin Merritt has returned to the sound that made us love him in the first place. ‘Realism’ is a charming burst of cascading piano, shimmering cello and lyrics about trying to “shove you off the nearest bridge.”

Album standout, ‘Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree’ jangles along merrily despite containing the instruction, “if they don’t like you, screw them,” and a ludicrously silly but utterly wonderful chorus sung in German. Eccentric, endearingly arch and with an acute pop sensibility, this is the most accessible Magnetic Fields record to date. 8/10

God, I wish I’d had more words to write about this one. How do you capture the latest work by one of the most arch and intriguing lyricists around in a little over 100 words?

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Keb Darge and Paul Weller Present Lost & Found – Real R’n’B and Soul’ (BBE)

Punch the air Northern Soul, gritty and passionate funk and heartbroken r’n’b compiled by two fanatical music lovers – it’s exactly the resounding triumph you might expect it to be. ‘Stronger That Her Love’ by The Flirtations sounds like Motown girl group classic you’ve somehow never heard, while the doo-wop with attitude feel of The Intruders’ ‘Hang On In There’ makes a welcome appearance.

Weller’s half of the compilation just edges it, partly because it contains the absolutely essential ‘Call Me’ by Emmitt Long. A mid-paced, horn-infused organ-driven charmer that Al Green in his pomp wouldn’t have sniffed at, it’s one of a number of absolute gems here. 8/10

Get the limited vinyl pressing of this one. It’s a cracking set of songs and it sounds ludicrously good at a high volume.

FEBRUARY 2010:

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KATHRYN WILLIAMS – ‘The Quickening’ (ONE LITTLE INDIAN)

Eleven years into a recording career that has garnered a small but loyal following, Kathryn Williams may well be casting the net wider with this first release for her new label. A witty, warm and intelligent songwriter, Williams has always had a way with words and, when she sings “watch you in my mind, all through my lunchtime” in ‘Wanting And Waiting’, she perfectly captures that lovesick feeling of wishing the day away so you can be back with that special someone. ‘The Quickening’ may be her finest release to date, with folk, jazz and pop influences all merging into a rather special whole. 8/10

Having lived with this for another couple of months, I would stand by the suggestion that this could well be her best to date. It’s a very accomplished record with some truly beautiful singing on it.

THE LOUNGS – Big Wow’ (FRESH HAIR RECORDS)

The musical landscape is a poorer place for the absence of The Beta Band, who disbanded back in 2004. For those still pining for unusual sounding indie music with a wry sense of humour and laced with killer melodies, meet The Loungs. Their debut, ‘We Are The Champ’, sounded like the Super Furries after too many E numbers, while this second outing is a cross between the aforementioned Beta Band and the unashamed retro of The Bees. Beware ‘Jack Sarfatti’, however, which sounds dangerously like the Kaiser Chiefs. There really is no need for that. Oh, and as I suspect you’re still wondering, it’s pronounced ‘Lungs’. 7/10

Their first album was a big favourite of mine and this one doesn’t disappoint. They’re funding it all themselves this time round so please don’t go off trying to Google an illegal download of this one. Buy it.

MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS – ‘The Family Jewels’ (679/ATLANTIC)

Marina Diamandis was responsible for one of 2009’s best singles, ‘I Am Not A Robot’, an infectious pop track featuring a unique vocal with more fluctuations than Florence sat on a washing machine. Sadly, its parent album doesn’t always maintain such standards. While ‘Numb’ and ‘Are You Satisfied?’ are similarly excellent, things sometimes feel a little forced, such as on the hideously titled ‘Hermit The Frog’ and ‘Shampain’. Marina describes the album as “intricately produced” and that’s where the problem lies. Such attention to detail leaves some of the songs feeling pretty sterile and, as a result, it’s a frustrating listen. Cherry pick wisely. 6/10

I really wanted this album to be brilliant. I remember being absolutely thrilled when I got asked to review it a couple of days before Christmas, but when I actually played it I found the experience fatiguing. I like to think that this brief review conveyed that fact, but Alexis Petridis’ review in The Guardian explored this line of thinking in far more effective fashion here.

2010 on the record

What are we calling this decade then?

Graham Linehan tweeted a little after midnight today the following, clearly humorous, question: “So what are your favourite albums of 2010 so far?” Some hours later he revealed that plenty of people actually sent him entirely sincere answers. It’s a strange old world. Having said that, I will happily state now that if The Magnetic Fields, Kathryn Williams and Tindersticks albums are not in my End of Year list twelve months from now I’ll have either gone mad or a phenomenal shift will have happened in the world of music, because they are all fantastic records. One of the perks of reviewing is when you get the albums you’re genuinely excited about dropping through your letterbox several months before you thought you might get to hear them. However, odd chap that I am, once I’ve done the review I more often not end up only playing them sparingly until the actual release date. I suspect it’s some subconscious thing about not wanting to spoil the full enjoyment surrounding a record’s release and all of the accompanying interviews and the like but I’m still not sure why it matters. Despite this, if any three albums were ever likely to break that pattern, it’s these. As two of the three reviews will be published in the next couple of days, I’ll endeavour to say more about both The Magnetic Fields and Tindersticks on here, as I know there are a number of loyal readers very keen to hear about one or the other. All I was really getting at is the fact that I already have a small, but perfectly formed, selection of evidence that 2010 will feature some outstanding music. Inevitably there will be those who say it wasn’t much cop when the inevitable retrospectives start again in ten months or so – just as plenty have done about the phenomenally splendid 2009 – but it’s all there if you look for it. On top of these three, the new albums by Massive Attack and, more importantly, Laura Marling will be with us shortly. Reason enough for ludicrous levels of excitement, methinks.

I’ve so enjoyed the recent run of posts for 40 From The Noughties that I suspect the blog is going to make its most forthright and busy start to a year that I can remember. Having been maintaining my internet presence for a little over five years now, it’s nice to start the new year with a bit of renewed enthusiasm and purpose. Here’s hoping it lasts. To extend the aspect of the last 40 posts I enjoyed most – writing about albums from a personal perspective – a new feature will begin shortly entitled ‘A Week With…’ in which I will pluck an album by any artist, hugely familiar or not, initially from my racks but I’m open to suggestions and recommendations on this one, spend a week listening to it in detail and then share my thoughts. The first one seemed to choose itself on Christmas Day and I’ve been playing it almost obsessively since.

I’ve also got the small matter of the 2009 End Of Year list to deal with and that’ll be with you later today. I don’t imagine I’ll say much about them, but I’ll ensure that there are links for listening purposes. You list fans can have one final hit, now that the big countdown is over. Hope the 40 From The Noughties feature was suitably entertaining, the feedback I’ve had so far would suggest so. Feel free to disagree with any or indeed all of it, either via the comments option or via the Just Played email address found on the ‘about’ page. A crisp, wintery wander beckons but rest assured, the promised content will be with you soon. Happy New Year, by the way!