Album of the Week, August 16: Little Black Numbers by Kathryn Williams

LittleBlackNumbersKathryn Williams began her music career when she moved from her native Liverpool to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to attend art school. She recorded the lovely Dog Leap Stairs, releasing it on her own Caw label. Hushed, intimate, and intense, the album received strong reviews and remarkable attention for a small release. While finishing her degree, Williams put together a second album, the sublime Little Black Numbers. Outstripping even the high expectations set by her debut, it’s a truly brilliant album without a false or dull moment. It was nominated for the coveted Mercury prize (losing to Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast) and landed her a distribution deal with EastWest/Atlantic.

Album Little Black Numbers
Act Kathryn Williams
Label Caw Release Date March 2000
Producer uncredited; engineered by Dave Maughan
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. We Dug A Hole
  2. Soul to Feet
  3. Stood
  4. Jasmine Hoop
  5. Fell Down Fast
  6. Flicker
  7. Intermission
  8. Tell the Truth As If It Were Lies
  9. Morning Song
  10. Toocan
  11. Each Star We See
  12. We Came Down From the Trees

Williams provides her quiet but powerful vocals and plays guitar and a bit of Hammond organ. The other consistent musical element is Laura Reid’s stunning cello work. There are more guest musicians here than on Dog Leap Stairs, but they clearly work within the vision that Williams provides. The whole package is cohesive and compelling, an amazing and unique set of songs delivered with subtle passion.

The central theme of the album is human behavior, a broad topic on which the singer shines a series of carefully focused lights. We Dug A Hole looks at the ways we seek to protect ourselves, using an energetic fade-out chorus that conjures up the digging. The song also introduces the naturalism that Williams weaves through the album, pondering our interactions and interference with the natural world as she draws inspiration from it.

Soul to Feet is a remarkable put-down, a slam against the self-involved so quietly delivered that it gains power from its subtlety. The next pair of songs are intimate looks at frustrating relationships. The narrator of Stood is pouring her love into a hollow shell, with the recipient making no effort to return her affection. Jasmine Hoop‘s protagonist is far cagier, recognizing the fault lines and treading carefully. The lyric also provides something of a mission statement for Williams’ music: “I’m going to tell you half the story so you’ll come back.”

In another smart pairing, Williams looks at loss. Fell Down Fast ponders the ways friendships can collapse, often without warning. Flicker is perhaps the finest moment in her catalog, a lush, aching look at the fleeting nature of life. It’s brilliantly constructed, carried on the kind of subtle breeze that the title celebrates.

Reid shares writing credit on the delightful Intermission, an instrumental pause that sets up the second half of the album. Tell the Truth As If It Were Lies is a great title for an energetic song, the closest these black numbers comes to truly rocking. Reid’s cello drives Toocan as well, a lovely capsule of a song that blends confusion and determination seamlessly. Morning Song starts the day on a dangerous note, encouraging its subject not to act precipitously. It’s a clever twist on the old conceit of a new day dawning.

Williams wraps things up with a powerful one-two punch. Each Star We See is her most expansive moment, taking the transience of Flicker and mounting it against the whole night sky. What could be bleak in less capable hands instead has a deep core of optimism, a tension that defines the singer’s best music. As a sort of coda to that epic observation, Williams offers a cautionary tale. We Came Down From the Trees: and that’s where all the trouble began. In another delightful conundrum, she asks us to look at the price of progress as well as its value. A smart, nicely constructed message song, it brings this song cycle so a quiet, clean, consummate close.

FURTHER LISTENING: After re-releasing her first two albums, Williams recorded two more for EastWest before deciding that her need for independence and creative control was greater than the benefits of major label reach. She recorded for a few indies and resurrected Caw for a couple of albums before settling in at One Little Indian, a label famous for the freedom it offers its artists. Her fairly steady output — a dozen albums, including a couple of collaborations, in 15 years — has far more highs than lows. The standouts in her catalog so far are

  • Dog Leap Stairs (1999), a solid debut that suffers only in comparison with the strength of its successor;
  • Two (2008), a delightful collaboration with quirky folk-pop musician Neill MacColl; and
  • The Quickening (2009), her first One Little Indian release and most consistent set since Little Black Numbers.
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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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