The Quickening by Kathryn Williams: A soft soul with hard edges, who shows us how quietness can resound so loudly.
Jude Rogers 2010-02-22
Ever since 2000’s Mercury-nominated Little Black Numbers, Kathryn Williams has remained one of Britain’s best, most surprising, and uncompromising singer-songwriters. Her songs are always intricately spun and her sentiments heavy with everyday poetry, but the delicacy of her voice has too often been equated with sweetness, and the depth of dark waters in her work are ignored. Given that her eighth album, The Quickening, is named after the strange stage of pregnancy when a foetus starts to move in the womb, Williams seems determined to remind us that that her music is fiercely alive.
The Quickening was made in four days, and recorded live by a group of musicians who had not heard Williams’ songs before they arrived in the studio. They brought with them a range of strange instruments – marimubulas, banduras, markosphones and cajons joining the usual arsenal of guitars and marimbas. Put together, they give this record a directness and fullness that bolsters Williams’ handling of lyrical mystery.
50 White Lines, a song about the night journeys of an artist on tour, becomes a beautiful, mythical epic. “If I can drive through this town I can vanish,” sings Williams, as thumb pianos and xylophones ring like bold bells. Elsewhere, the band adds different colours and shadows to the music. Black Oil’s tale of sunflowers in the evening holds both magic and menace, as the bass notes of a piano ring out and drums echo softly, while Just a Feeling plays with listeners’ minds, its hurdy gurdys and dark rhythms clashing with Williams’ pretty melody, telling us how “sad songs don’t sound so sad in the sun”. There Are Keys is even more sinister and strange; its opening electronic crackle gives way to a thick tangle of steel strings, stories about “pylons on stiletto toes”, and images of clockwork birds that won’t wake up.
With every play, The Quickening becomes more impressive, reminding you of the rich songcraft of Elvis Costello, and Kate Bush’s last album, Aerial, particularly in the way that it sounds so accessible but yet so peculiar. She deserves to belong in this canon, and we should savour Williams’ talent – a soft soul with hard edges, who shows us how quietness can resound so loudly.