KATHRYN WILLIAMS AND WITHERED HAND – Willson Williams (One Independent Records)

Willson WilliamsWillson Williams is music that is (to invert the words of Charles Dickens) “the worst of times” and “the best of times”. Maverick British singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams has joined forces with Good News guy Withered Hand (aka Dan Willson) to create an album with an “overreaching theme of grief” that in wonderful juxtaposition floats with the comfort of warm folk melodies, nice harmonies, and soft introspection.

To the novice: Kathryn Williams’ wispy voice has graced countless albums that have wonderfully shifted folk gravity. Her early acoustic work was greeted with press that said, “One of the most exciting new songwriters to emerge for a long time” (Thank you, Sunday Times!). But she followed a labyrinth path that morphed, amid many great folk albums such as Leave To Remain and Little Black Numbers, into an ode to Slyvia Path with Hypoxia, a jazz standard album, Resonator, a weird covers album (that included Big Star’s ‘13’!), and the brilliant Night Drives, with the help of Ed Harcourt that bounced electronics (and other strange sounds) off her trademark acoustic melodic vibe.

And how to explain Withered Hand? That may well be yet another important literary question. Well, Dan Willson is a Scottish indie singer-songwriter of immense lyrical tangential thought. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and this gave his “fledgling artistic temperament a lot to think about”. (Thank you, Wikapedia!) And ditto for his patient fans who heard his intriguing siren’s symbolic call in the opening words of his very first Withered Hand song, ‘Cornflake’, which sang, “So I broke another of the Ten Commandments”. And he ends the tune with the hope of equally simple words, “Won’t someone help me roll away the stone”. Indeed, this is just his Good News.

But, just so you know, Willson Williams is just a lovely set of dueted songs. ‘Arrow’ is woozy with blissful dueted harmonies and a tender melody that surfs several universes of gentle conversations. And ‘Grace” oozes with a country soul that asks, “Did you ever love someone and left the song of love unsung”. The tune, with acoustic guitar and slight violin, teeters on a tough emotional precipice. Then, ‘R U 4 Real’ injects a gospel organ-soaked slow-funked vibe with true confessional lyrics. This is slow-danced stuff. And that stroll continues with ‘Our Best’, which softly grips onto any soulful comfort amid that (before-mentioned) theme of “overreaching grief”.

Now, this woozy, blissful, soft-strolled soulful comfort may not gel with the traditional folk purists. It’s a modern songwriter’s creation. And while it’s not quite as wrenching as (the great) Peter Hammill’s broken-hearted Over album, the nice Oysterband/June Tabor cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, or every third song by Richard Thompson, it does couch deep emotions in a wonderfully dark cloud of those (before-mentioned) universes of gentle conversations.

That said, the songs suddenly recover a positive “best of times” pulse. ‘Shelf’ is a jaunty ride through a thoughtful memory. Once again, the harmonies are sublime. It’s a nice juxtaposition to the earlier tunes. Then, ‘Wish’ is urgent, with its jangly pop vibe. The same is true for ‘Weekend’, which sings with a melodic Sixties London bus ride whirlwind melody. Odd – Paul Simon comes to mind. Perhaps, the song touches some universal sense of “feeling groovy”, with joyous vocalizing. And then, ‘Sing Out’ is even more “groovy”, with its wit and wisdom that “You can do what you want”. The tune cuts a wide folky berth with explosive vocals that send a certain “Got well card”(with handclaps!) in response to that initial  “overreaching theme of grief” concern. Nice!

And ‘Sweetest Wine’ does recall that (also before-mentioned) Oysterband/June Tabor’s cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Huge compliment.

Indeed, ‘Elvis’ is tender acoustic folk harmony vocal perfection, with the sweet voice of any ghost who still wants to sing, “Did you ever love someone and left the song of love unsung”. The tune swells with more of that softly gripped soulful comfort.

The final song, ‘Big Nothing’, in some contrast, rocks with electric guitars, big drums, synthesized keyboard wizardry, and even more of the Wilson/Williams exquisite vocalizing.

Willson Williams is an album that never has to ask “Son David” (or sometimes “Edward’) exactly whose blood is upon his sword. But to be certain, there’s a lot of soft blood in these songs. And that blood, with its “overreaching theme of grief”, melodically mingles with the “sweetest wine”, that by the end of a very modern vinyl spin, ends in a harmonious set of hopeful tunes.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: https://witheredhand.bandcamp.com/album/willson-williams

‘Shelf’ – official video: