Sunday, May 18, 2008

Kathryn Williams Covers:
Tom Waits, Big Star, Velvet Underground

I first heard UK-based singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams a few years ago, when tracks from her 2004 major-label all-covers release Relations began to show up on the cover blogs. Since you, too, are a reader of music and cover blogs, you've surely heard her gorgeous, tense version of Nirvana's All Apologies from that album. And you may remember her dreamy and delicate cover of Spit on a Stranger I posted, alongside the Nickel Creek cover of the same tune a few months back, when we did a feature on Pavement; looking back, it still feels like Williams' track was the strongest of the entry.

But while cover songs provide a comfortable entry point for us to discover new artists or revisit older ones, in the best possible world, when considering the work of a performer or songwriter, a cover song is only a doorway to discovery, and not the full house. Like cover songs it contains, Relations provides both an excellent introduction to the work of an incredible artist, and to her sound, but it would be a mistake to let a few tracks from Relations remain the endpoint of an experience with Kathryn Williams.

For one thing, Relations remains one of only two major-label releases in what is otherwise a catalog of solid singer-songwriter albums produced on Caw Records, Kathryn Williams' own label. Though the differences of label-vs.-indie influence can be slight in actual performance, in this case, given the less-than-mainstream extremes we hear spilling into the margins of Williams’ penultimate release Leave to Remain -- which Kathryn herself describes as “the one where, if it wasn’t my voice, I could probably listen to it’” -- it seems safe to assume that Kathryn might consider her indie releases to be more authentic representations of her sound as she herself imagines it.

And, for another, though her body of work falls squarely within the definition of folk music, within that broad definition Kathryn Williams defies easy categorization. Her tendency towards confessional songwriting, in the style of Dylan or Joni Mitchell, is evident to all; her guitarwork is consistent with that approach, if more delicate. But hiding behind her deceptively unassuming lyrical performance and acoustic guitar style is more than a tinge of grungefolk, like predecessors Mary Lou Lord and Juliana Hatfield. And a preference for unusual instrumentation – strings, woodwinds, drumbeats among them -- and a tendency towards the use of these instruments to produce dissonance and drone effects in production, has led to legitimate comparisons with the new freak and psych folk camps.

Williams’ increasing facility in exploring the potential of such disparate elements comes to a head with Two, her new album with fellow singer-songwriter Neill MacColl. Two is presented as a duo album, but it fits squarely into the Kathryn Williams canon; on the majority of the album, Williams voice is solo, and we hear a more mature, confident expression of what has come before – sweet on the surface, with an undertone of experience (see, for example, the much more radio-friendly yet equally gorgeous sound of Come With Me.)

And though the songs are predominantly co-written, the primary voice here, too, is still hers: with the exception of a single duet on the album’s sole cover, MacColl seems to be primarily contributing harmony vocals and additional stringwork, while Kathryn's “barely there” vocals and overall sound are more prominent. Further, although in parts the album comes across as experimental, its sound is still very clearly a continuation of the musical directions in which Kathryn Williams has been moving for much of her career.

Ironically, nowhere is Kathryn's dominant hand more evident than in the only true duet on the album, a cover of Tom Waits classic Innocent When You Dream. At first listen, the song sounds weird and unfinished: instead of harmonizing, the two voices pull at each other, fighting for the listener’s attention. But by bringing forward the fragile freak-folk sound through vocal dissonance, instead of hiding it in the undertone or drone or production, the true nature of Kath's complicated vision is finally realized.

What finally becomes clear when pursuing the deeper success of Kathryn Williams work is that where most folk invites the listener, this a folk that coaxes and teases, lulling us in with a sense of familiarity, only to challenge us with tension and undertones not usually heard in singer-songwriter folk. If it took a collaboration with Neill MacColl to bring this out, so much the better, and kudos to both. But regardless of whether you think of this newer work as a solo record or a true collaboration, though it may take several listens to fully appreciate it, Two is a tour de force, one which re-establishes Kathryn Williams as a folk artist to keep watching as she continues to mature and explore.

Here's a few great but often underplayed covers from Relations to set the stage, followed by that cover of Innocent When You Dream, so you can hear for yourself how one leads to the other. In neither case, though, do one or two songs represent the beauty or breadth of the full albums; I highly recommend seeking out both Relations and Two in their entirety.

No bonus tracks today, sadly; all but a small handful of my music remain unaccessible due to previously-mentioned technical difficulties. I'm hoping to have some resolution on the computer front in the next week or so; in the meanwhile, here's some highly relevant and still-snaggable tracks previously posted on Cover Lay Down:


Peter N said...

Im a massive Kathryn Williams fan. I agree she has a georgous voice and her cds are amazing. Great post.

Natsthename said...

Thank you so much; Kathryn is excellent!

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