the smart will have small stature, the influential will have physical potency, and the rich? they will have long, lustrous locks.
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


It's Monday, today, (hello!) and I'm going to write about Kathryn Williams.

Four years ago, I was in a magazine store and picked up something British - Mojo or Uncut or something, - and scanned a story about the Mercury Prize. What caught my attention was a line something like this: "...also nominated is Kathryn Williams, a female Nick Drake..."

There are countless singer-songwriters out there who idolize Mr Drake, and a great number who spend far too much time and money recording insipid, impotent tunes. Comparing her to him is moderately accurate, but it's also a little unfair. One soft-voiced folksinger need not be doing the same thing as another. Kathryn Williams owes something to Nick Drake, certainly, but also to Joni Mitchell, The Smiths, and herself. The Nick Drake ghetto can be a hamfisted pigeonhole.

As we were walking in the Market a few days ago, I commented to Julian that the problem with liking folkie/singer-songwriter stuff is that people assume you enjoy the work of every person who picks up an acoustic guitar and awkwardly serenades a patio. When I finally managed to find Kathryn Williams' material (which until Old Low Light was very difficult indeed, on this side of the Atlantic), I was very pleasantly surprised. Little Black Numbers is an altogether wonderful record - music made up of small gestures, subtle smiles. Her first record (Dog Leap Stairs) is rather disappointing, and some of her later work is hit-and-miss, but she's really an excellent singer, especially when she sings with her mind, and not just her voice.

(To go on a little tangent, I was reading this interview with Leslie Feist, and I had to wonder about what she said, exactly, which entitled the reporter to write this: "[Leslie says that] it?s more interesting to perform that sad song with no expression and let instrumentation and beautiful arrangements fill that space left open by the performer." The sentiment is completely right, of course, some of the time, but there are other moments when you must invest a little more and not just leave things "calm." That's probably Let It Die's biggest flaw - too much of it is pleasant, cool. (There's a reason that despite her phenomenal talent, most people don't own multiple Bebel Gilberto records; or that nobody's screaming for another Hem disc.) Kathryn's not so fantastic at "calm" - her version of "Hallelujah," for instance, plays things a little too nice, and the cover of Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger" lacks both hipness and an active wit.)

A three-song tour, then, of some of Kathryn Williams' best work, ending with a selection from her newest album, a collection of covers called Relations.

Kathryn Williams - "We Dug a Hole". The opening track from 2000's Little Black Numbers. It's halting at first, steps across stones in a grey creek. But Kathryn's voice slowly gains momentum - as do the guitar and acoustic bass. Lots of room in this song, open spaces for open hands and stretching arms. It's one of these things that I can't imagine translating into a live performance: the ebb and flow would be canned, the fluttering growth rehearsed. When the big bass drum joins in, cello stoking the fire, it builds to a green-and-swirling climax, voices and radio-chatter in the background - like Nick Drake, maybe, but only after a night of listening to White Light White Heat. (ok, i admit, that's stretching it.) [buy]

Kathryn Williams - "No One Takes You Home". A rousing anthem for feeling good when you're feeling bad, culled from 2002's Old Low Light, which was distributed by Warner (at least in Canada). From the very start, that accelerating strum signals that the song's going somewhere, heading downhill to a place that's lit up and full of music - a pub? a club? a friend's home?. Before long a cello's joined you on the lane, then a tambourine, and lo and behold there's a crowd: they've got wine-stained lips and eyes aglow. You march en masse, you join hands and probably flirt, you kick in a door and ask: "Why can't life give [us] some more?" By the time you're "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ing" there's some twee confetti in the air, a trumpet giving you long looks. Gladness. And then it's gone. [buy]

Kathryn Williams - "Thirteen". Relations is an exciting record for people who like Kathryn Williams, and for people who like covers, but not for those who dislike either. She doesn't do anything astonishing enough to convert the unconverted, nor are most of these tracks fine - or different - enough that they outshine the originals. Accept those caveats, however, and there's a lot of pleasure to be found on the album - after all, here's Kathryn doing Nico, the Velvet Underground, Pavement, Nirvana, and more. In front of us right now is, of course, a rendition of Big Star's "Thirteen." It's cool, first of all, because it features the only non-atrocious use of bongos that I can remember. It's also cool because it is completely great - it's happy and sad and nostalgic and regretful and not.

When you're young, certain things happen, and they're sad or they're sweet but somehow you know that later, thinking back, the moments will be sadder or sweeter still. That there's something magic in the childish Now that's fluttering beneath the surface, something that you can't quite grasp but know that one day you'll long for. Well that's what this song is about, and it's in the way Kathryn Williams sings, it's in the doo-wop mermaid voices, it's in the ephemeral-perfect guitar solo. It's all there, and then it's not, and you dream of it sometimes. [buy]

Posted by Sean at June 7, 2004 1:42 AM

simply: thank you. i really love this music.

Posted by lisa at June 7, 2004 3:19 PM

thanks for "No One Takes". has a nice pay-off for sure. slightly creeky violin feels good in there....

have you heard the song "Wishbones" by Slaid my head constantly.

Posted by scandal face at June 7, 2004 3:25 PM

You're very welcome, lisa. Glad a couple of you liked it!

sf - never even HEARD of Slaid Gleaves. Tell me more!

Posted by Sean at June 8, 2004 1:18 AM

I also recommend Elliott Smith's cover of "Thirteen."

Posted by Ieinz at June 8, 2004 4:25 AM

Slaid Cleeves is the median between Steve Earle and Robbie Fulks (does this make sense?). just a good, literal songwriter with a slight "Americana" bent.

Posted by scandal face at June 8, 2004 10:00 AM

I have her last album -- can't wait to hear the covers record.

Posted by stereogum at June 8, 2004 10:50 AM

I'm a little disappointed by Slaid's new album but the previous two were great. He has a voice somewhere between Loudon Wainwright III and James Taylor and is great live. Pissed off I missed him when he was in Nottingham last month but I wasn't...

Posted by Dymbel at June 11, 2004 1:35 PM

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about said the gramophone
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about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

Emma Healey writes poems and essays in Toronto. She joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. This is her website and email her here.

Jeff Miller is a Montreal-based writer and zinemaker. He is the author of Ghost Pine: All Stories True and a bunch of other stories. He joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. Say hello on Twitter or email.

Mitz Takahashi is originally from Osaka, Japan who now lives and works as a furniture designer/maker in Montreal. English is not his first language so please forgive his glamour grammar mistakes. He is trying. He joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. Reach him by email here.

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Dan Beirne wrote regularly for Said the Gramophone from August 2004 to December 2014. He is an actor and writer living in Toronto. Any claim he makes about his life on here is probably untrue. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.

Jordan Himelfarb wrote for Said the Gramophone from November 2004 to March 2012. He lives in Toronto. He is an opinion editor at the Toronto Star. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.
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