by Sean Jewell ::
Marlon Williams‘s self-titled album is the best Americana album around right now. He’s from New Zealand. This is not really that surprising. We love our Southern Hemisphere counterparts. The garage rock of Milk Records and Courtney Barnett, to the blue-grass of Mustered Courage, and Fraser Gorman‘s excellent “Slow Gum” Americana record have made Australia (and New Zealand) excellent sources for roots music the last few years. Marlon Williams is special, though. His tortured voice has the special kind of aching Hank Williams did. His songs are oddly melancholy, moody. Electric guitars wine and pan, acoustic strums, and steady (well recorded) drums make the record sonically gorgeous, but Marlon Williams voice remains unforgettable, the belle of the dimly lit ’60s-era, teenage-awkward, ball.
Like a real deal absent-minded asshole critic, I missed his show in Seattle recently. The sound guy told me Williams was the most incredible vocalist he’d worked with in some time. I don’t know much about vocals (I’m often at a loss for words to even describe voices). I’m not sure what you would call his “range,” but I am sure of this: he makes me feel like an Etta James record does. As a singer and songwriter he creates a wild tension. Through every minute of his album you’re sure the world might end, your heart will break, you’ll die of loneliness, that you’ve never really listened (sure, you heard but did you listen), that you’ve been wrong all this time. Which isn’t to say it makes you feel bad to hear. Just that Williams’s flair for the dramatic is theatrical, gripping, mind shifting art.
The album begins with a chug (“Hello Miss Lonesome,” “After All”) and finishes with a crawl (“Everyone’s Got Something To Say”), but never ceases to be exciting. Keyboards on “I’m Lost Without You” mimic Sun Ra, or Roger Waters synth, making the “Lost” in the title a far out in space lost, long gone, dark, lonely lost. Immediately after on “Lonely Side of Her” he fingerpicks acoustic and warbles over guitar about a tortured lover. “Silent Passage” sails on slide guitar, and “Strange Things,” a strange tale of a strange past, brings in found percussion, and strings that whistle like a theremin. Strange indeed. Magic happens when Williams takes on “When I Was a Young Girl,” mashing the vocals of Nina Simone‘s version with the acoustic guitar playing of Barbara Dane‘s Anthology of American Folk Songs version. He plucks bass notes obtusely, and drags out the tale until the tension might make it snap like Nina did.
If you’re like me and missed Marlon on his solo tour, fret not, he’ll be at SXSW, and he’s joining other inimitable performers Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop on tour this summer; plan accordingly. Marlon Williams‘s self titled album comes out on Dead Oceans on February 19th.