[not final artwork]
Due for release in February 2010, The Quickening will be the seventh solo studio album from Kathryn Williams, and her first since 2007′s Leave To Remain. For an artist with such a consistently strong catalogue and a Mercury Prize nomination under her belt, she remains something of a well kept secret, while other lesser artists have ridden into the mainstream on the back of the recent ‘new folk’ resurgence. That could all be set change next year, with the help of a new deal with One Little Indian and perhaps the most accomplished album of her career. The Quickening was recorded live at Bryn Derwen Studio in North Wales in just four days, with a self imposed limit of three takes per song. Incredibly, Kathryn did not allow the other musicians to hear the compositions before entering the studio, giving a palpable sense of immediacy to what must surely be recognised as some of her best material to date. A full review of the album will follow in February. For now, here’s our track-by-track preview:
’50 White Lines’
The album opens with the sound of rainfall and a ticking indicator giving way to a song about long distance driving. Given the subject matter, it’s a beautiful and slightly hypnotic way to open the album. A male voice counts the white lines on the road as Kathryn sings about “lights in the mirror, darting like fish”.
‘Just A Feeling’
A softly spoken vocal and fingerpicked guitar reminiscent of Nick Drake accompany a lyric full of philosophical musings and self-doubt: “Is belief a scratch you’ve got to itch? What if love is just a feeling?”
‘Winter Is Sharp’
The closest thing to a traditional English folk song Kathryn has released to date, this short little shanty sees Kathryn accompanied by a backing vocal that evokes The Unthanks or Eliza Carthy, plus accordion and ukelele that picks up pace to bring the track to a frenetic conclusion.
‘Wanting & Waiting’
Backed by piano and banjo, this reimagining of The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a song about wishing away the hours of a 9 to 5 job and yearning instead for long romantic nights. It’s an evocative portrait of young love in the city and perhaps the album’s most obvious choice for a single.
At just 83 seconds long, ‘Black Oil’ punctuates the album with a snapshot of a field at dusk full of shining yellow flowers and birds “head to toe in black oil”. Like ‘Little Black Numbers’ before it, this mysterious curiosity of a song leaves much to interpretation.
Far from the all-consuming young love of ‘Wanting & Waiting’, ‘Just Leave’ is a bleak depiction of a couple falling apart at the seams. Weighed down by heavy silences and her partner’s wandering heart, the song’s narrator pleads, “Just leave, just leave, just leave.”
The theme of a love slipping away is continued on ‘Smoke’. A glockenspiel leads a stripped back arrangement while Kathryn sings, “Holding you is like holding smoke… I kiss and I blow and you float out of sight.”
‘Cream Of The Crop’
The first of two consecutive jazz-infused tracks that bring about a strange shift in tone at this point on the record. Co-written with long-time collaborator David Scott and previously performed live, it’s a strong song but one that would perhaps have sounded more at home on earlier album, Old Low Light.
‘There Are Keys’
The second slightly incongruous track on the record with its woozy vocal and atmospheric production, the lyric is centred around a missing loved one and the narrator’s desire to know that they’re safe.
It’s back to a more folk-oriented sound with ‘Noble Guesses’. Kathryn sings about the importance and value of absence and various ‘holes’ – from the gaps needed to structure the first periodic table to the enigmatic space left in a family album where a polaroid once was.
A curious track co-written with poet Nev Clay and Kathryn’s new touring bassist Simon Edwards. With a lead bassline, handclaps and an undulating vocal, it’s a kind of campfire song that quickly works its way into the consciousness with the refrain “Give a little lesson for our love”.
A paean to Kathryn’s home in the north of England, she sings “If I could always be next to you I would”, perhaps regretting that she has to spend so much time on the road away from family and friends. The song brings the album, which began behind the wheel, full circle, with the first and last tracks providing neat bookends for a diverse but inspired collection of songs.