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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Song of the Day, September 15: 50 White Lines by Kathryn Williams

KWQuickToday’s song is 50 White Lines by Kathryn Williams. By the time of her eighth album, 2010’s The Quickening, Williams had established herself as a potent, independent talent. Her acclaimed debut was recorded for only £80 and the follow-up, Little Black Numbers earned a Mercury Prize nomination. She recorded an album of well-chosen covers, dueted with Neill MacColl, and mixed in a regular stream of her own material, polishing her simple but powerful guitar-and-vocal sound.

The lead single on The Quickening is one of her finest moments. Narrated from behind the wheel of a car, it finds thd singer trying to escape into the night. The quick visual flashes in the lyrics are followed by a lilting chant of the phrase “like sparks,” reflecting her thought patterns as a steady voice counts the lines on the pavement zooming by. Quietly urgent, it captures the hypnosis of the nighttime road perfectly while maintaining a nice air of mystery.

Enjoy this wonderful song  today.

Song of the Day, September 26: We Dug A Hole by Kathryn Williams

KWilliamsHoleToday’s song is We Dug A Hole by Kathryn Williams, another track from her stunning second album Little Black Numbers. Quirky and mysterious, it’s a reflection on dealing with all the forces in the world that we’d rather avoid.

We dug a hole
To keep everyone out of view
We dug a hole
Hoped it was big enough

Williams’ trademark breathy vocals have an eerie urgency on this track, giving it a distinctive power. The song fades out with a long repetition of the phrase “Warmer than wood, old and safe,” which feels like a request for solace in the hole we’ve dug. Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, June 11: Toocan by Kathryn Williams

KWilliamsToocanToday’s song is Toocan by Kathryn Williams. It appears on her stunning second album, the Mercury-nominated Little Black Numbers. Many of her songs involve natural images and meditations on modern life. Few merge them as directly as this track.

The bird flew into the window
Saw himself and got confused
Saw himself and fell in love
Flew straight into the glass

Williams compares the fate of the bird with her own life, hoping to find something real and not be distracted by illusions. It’s a nicely constructed image, presented quietly and honestly, and proves one of the most moving moments on a powerful, reflective disc.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, October 19: Grey Goes by Kathryn Williams

Today’s song is Grey Goes by Kathryn Williams. Over the first decade of her career Williams released five strong albums of original material and one album of creative and inspired covers. For her seventh outing, she found a sympathetic collaborator for the entire disc. Neill MacColl, a member of the great musical family, had been part of the Bible and Liberty Horses before working on a solo career. His quietly powerful vocals and quirky sense of folk-inspired pop are much like Williams’ and their joint recording, Two, is a lovely listen.

Many of the tracks are vocal collaborations as well, but this song — while written by both partners — is a solo performance. It’s a wonderful song about color and meaning. Williams sings it with a wink, a nod, and a shudder, well suited to the clever lyrics.

With my big net
I’m catching colours
I’ve caught a red one
And trapped a deep blue
I found green hiding behind a big bush
And a yellow has heard me coming through

I’ve looked in shadows and tapped on walls
Went to school to find a uniform
But I can’t see where all the grey goes

Enjoy this solo acoustic performance of a delightful song today.

Song of the Day, September 16: Soul to Feet by Kathryn Williams

Today’s song is Soul to Feet by Kathryn Williams. It’s another stunning track from her second album, Little Black Numbers. Set against a simple acoustic guitar and cello with minimal percussion, it’s a deceptively quiet song. The lyrics are a clever dismantling of a self-important person. Williams skewers the constant stream of inanities that the subject utters to avoid being part of anyone else’s life.

Is your life so exciting
You have to tell everyone you meet
Try to make it so enticing
You wear your soul out to your feet
Always leave before them
You want them to think
You’ve got so much to do
Maybe they’re not thinking of you

Enjoy this masterful song today.

Song of the Day, July 29: Tell the Truth As If It Were Lies by Kathryn Williams

Today’s song is Tell the Truth As If It Were Lies by Kathryn Williams. Another track from the brilliant Little Black Numbers, it’s a remarkably straightforward song for the usually cagey singer-songwriter. The title sums it up nicely, with the lyrics dissecting a deceitful companion. The music is a perfect accompaniment, simple and stripped down, emphasizing every point with its keen insistence.

You listen to yourself
All of the time
Cut off every line I say
How did you turn it all around
I won’t be playing your game today
You tell the truth
As if it were lies

Enjoy this biting song of farewell today.

Song of the Day, April 13: Jasmine Hoop by Kathryn Williams

Today’s song is Jasmine Hoop by Kathryn Williams. It’s another great song from her 2000 masterpiece, Little Black Numbers. A perfect vignette, it picks up the narrators thoughts midstream as she stares through the plants in her window and ponders a less-than-perfect relationship.

I’m going to tell you half the story so you’ll come back
I’m going to tell you half the answers so if you get one
Won’t expect it, don’t expect it dear

Enjoy this perfectly crafted gem today.

Song of the Day, February 5: Flicker by Kathryn Williams

Today’s song is Flicker by Kathryn Williams. This beautiful tune from her 2000 album Little Black Numbers is one of her finest. It’s a quiet meditation on the transience of life, with a clear message to focus on things that matter. With neat irony, she observes the ways we speed from one inconsequence to another while failing to appreciate more important occupations.

I keep my time saved in a box
From going fast in cars
I’ve piled it up high
From saying hello to friends with a quick goodbye

There’s not enough time
In one life for one man
Just a flicker and then a breeze

Enjoy this wonderful song and then find something beautiful to do today.

Song of the Day, July 21: Hallelujah written by Leonard Cohen (John Cale performance)

Today’s song is Hallelujah, written by Leonard Cohen. Originally included on his 1984 album Various Positions, the song struck a chord with the musical community and has been covered dozens of times by a wide variety of artists. Cohen has stated that “many different hallelujahs exist” referring to the amazing diversity of interpretation the deceptively simple song has received. There are also a number of lyrical variations performed.

Ironically most of the famous versions use lyrics that differ noticeably from Cohen’s original recording. When John Cale decided to perform the song for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, he asked Cohen for the lyrics and was promptly faxed 15 pages. He picked out what he considered the “cheeky” bits and recorded the version that is the basis for most later covers.

This is one of my very favorite songs, one I’ve loved since long before the glut of Hallelujahs over the past decade. I have wonderful versions in my collection by Cale, Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Alison Crowe, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Wainwright, and Kathryn Williams. Buckleys’ is famously sublime and Wainwright’s is beautifully sneaky. My favorite, however is the stark, elegant reading by John Cale. Enjoy his masterful interpretation of this enduring song today.

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