Kathryn Williams: Songs from the Novel Greatest Hits
16 June 2-17 – One Little Indian
Songs from the Novel Greatest Hits is Kathryn Williams’ third concept album in a row, following on from 2015’s Hypoxia, which was built around the poems of Sylvia Path, and Resonator, 2016’s jazz standards collaboration with Anthony Kerr. For her latest, Kathryn has paired up with author Laura Barnett who approached her with the idea for a collection of songs based on her second novel, Greatest Hits.
The album was produced by Romeo Stodart from The Magic Numbers, who also provides guitars and keyboards. It also features, among others, his sister Michele on bass and percussion, reeds wizard Kate St. John and Neill MacColl on guitars, e-bow and mandolin.
The songs, like the book, revolve around the story of Cass Williams, a Joni Mitchell-like singer who retired at the height of her fame in the 70s, as she looks back on her career while putting together the novel’s titular album, each chapter – and song – concerning a moment in her life. It begins with Common Ground, a breathy, sweetly sung pastoral folksy pop song about Cass’s mother abandoning the family. Any stylistic expectations that might engender are upset, however, with Architect, a moody electronica number with handclap beats, noodling synths, shifting rhythms and weird background vocal effects. It’s back to airy pop on Living Free which, like the sax-embellished jazzier notes of the dreamy early hours I Wrote You A Love Song, features writing credits by Romeo Stodart.
Her early pastoral English folk influences are in evidence in the summery fast-slow Just Us Two, but, by contrast, Road of Shadows, on which Michelle Stodart and Polly Paulusma also input on the writing, heads into blues-rock territory with a chugging bassline, driving rhythm and swathes of electric guitar. Just as the life it charts comes in different shades, so too does the music keep shape-shifting, Don’t Step On the Cracks is a languid piano ballad while She Wears A Dress nods to 60s Motown girl groups and Lilies evokes the sonic gauze of Mazzy Star.
Played out over 16 songs/chapters, it could be argued that the diversity of styles and the way songs numbers take off at musical tangents mid-song work to a disadvantage, but throughout it’s anchored by Williams’ smoky tones, at the same time both seductive and guileless, and the quality of her and Barnett’s lyrics. In the latter stretch, your attention is particularly directed to the shimmering New York set Queen of the Snow with St. John’s cor anglais, the feelgood Christmassy shuffle of Home and the five- and-a-half minute carousel waltzer Gethsemane with its piano, hand percussion and giddily soaring chorus as it builds to a sway-along fade.
It ends in simple fingerpicked acoustic form with When Morning Comes, a number which, harking back to those early albums, unfussily puts the spotlight on the openness and beauty of her voice. Here’s hoping the fictional Cass Williams has a career revival and Barnett and Williams can set about working together on the comeback.
Read more about the novel Greatest Hits here: http://www.laura-barnett.co.uk/greatest-hits/