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Album review: Kathryn Williams “Crown Electric” (Folk Radio UK)

October 7, 2013

Kathryn Williams - Crown ElectricTaking a little time out from the collaborative project and ‘democratic mud pit’ that is The Pond, singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams continues to demonstrate why she is so highly regarded on her new record Crown Electric, her first solo album since 2010’s The Quickening.

On first listening, you might think this record sits at the poppier end of folk music, and there’s no doubt that the overall sound and polished production add to that impression. But take the time to listen in a little more deeply and a whole other world is revealed, and it’s to be found in the lyrics. Musically, at a time when the world and her sister seems fixated on Americana, it’s a refreshing change to hear songs which aren’t reliant on that particular idiom for inspiration. Kathryn’s flair for picking up often small details from everyday life and turning them into compelling, often melancholic, musings on the human condition is one which few other songwriters have, and it’s that which sets this album apart from the crowd.

Opening track Underground is a good example of this: it’s an astute observation of rush hour commuting and coming to the realisation that this is perhaps not the ideal way to live one’s life. The string arrangement lifts the chorus and the harmony vocals in the middle eight are, as they say, to die for.

The source of the album’s title is found in Gave it Away, a downbeat yet still somehow optimistic musing on the transience of fame and of love; the weary lyric is reflected in the minor key arrangement. The radio-friendly single Heart Shaped Stone is a curious thing; while the lyrics deal with the theme of the ebb and flow of relationships, the musical arrangement brings to mind both Kirsty MacColl and The Smiths – but I have absolutely no idea what the video is about! Nevertheless, as a way into the album for new listeners, it’s easy to understand why it was chosen as the single: the chorus is incredibly catchy and the production makes it well-suited for the radio.

Count treads a fine line with great success: musically, there’s a string arrangement which wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by The Beatles – Revolver comes to mind – while the lyric appears to be touching on the subject of depression; how it may manifest itself and be helped or hindered by medication. Of course, I could be completely misinterpreting Kathryn’s lyrics – and, if so, am happy to be corrected – but, in an age where it’s estimated that 10% of the population experience depression at any one time [source], it’s certainly a subject which would benefit from a deeper understanding and, if Count is able to help open up that discussion, then that’s surely a good thing.

Out of Time is a captivating ballad; its muted horn section makes it a strong contender for a mellow mixtape to be played during the small hours before Monday Morning deposits the listener back in the rat race alluded to in the opening track. The first of three collaborations with Ed Harcourt, Darkness Light, has some lovely harmonies over its numerous chord changes, while Picture Book is a dreamy ballad about the uncertainties of new love. The musical complexities of Morning Twilight (the second collaboration with Ed Harcourt) provide a fitting backdrop for an elegy to the nuances of lost love before the delicately airy Arwen – written with James Yorkston – drifts in with a deep sense of yearning over a swirling cello. The vocal harmonies, too, are outstanding; no mean feat on an album that is a tour de force of the singer’s art.

Tequila is a rainbow of tone colours, courtesy of a skilful arrangement of strings and horns which foregrounds the vocal twists and turns. The shimmering Sequins on my Eyes bears the hallmarks of Ed Harcourt’s musical input while allowing Kathryn to show off her vocal range while closing track The Known faces the uncertain times we all inhabit to round out an album which covers a huge amount of ground from the simple to the complex, light and dark, loud and quiet yet unites all these disparate elements through a combination of musicianship, production values and, above all, Kathryn’s gorgeous singing. You need this record in your life.

 

 

Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (07 October 2013)

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