Rising Kiwi singer-songwriter Marlon Williams impresses with a haunting solo debut, writes GARETH HIPWELL.
The much-anticipated solo debut from 24-year-old New Zealander Marlon Williams is a monument to the utility of the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement. Although now based in Melbourne, Williams made repeat crossings to his hometown of Lyttelton, NZ between April and July last year to record the album with a stable of long-time collaborators. The confidence Williams draws from familiar faces and surroundings is palpable, resulting in a collection of nine sometimes disparate tracks that are bound together by the same striking poise and unique polish.
Williams has been a paid-up member of the thriving Christchurch-Lyttelton alt-country establishment since his early days with The Unfaithful Ways, whose debut full-length outing Free Rein arrived in 2011. Marlon Williams is the singer-songwriter’s fifth LP credit, and tails his diverse three-volume Sad But True series with countryman Delaney Davidson – who lends guitar and lap-steel parts here. As with preceding projects, Marlon Williams was recorded at Lyttelton’s Sitting Room studios, with co-producer and regular Williams attach? Ben Edwards (The Eastern, Tami Neilson). There’s input here from a range of New Zealand players, including former Unfaithful Ways bassist Ben Woolley, one-time Weta guitarist Aaron Tokona, Aldous Harding on vocals, pedal steel player John Egenes, and members of noise-rockers Asian Tang.
“A meandering, fatalistic indie rock cut that builds toward an excoriating climax”
A strong emphasis on backing vocals in particular hints that Williams – a former cathedral chorister – is hesitant to step away entirely from the props and mantle of band and vocal support. Arrangements are frequently rich and always studied, but it’s those vanishingly few moments that find Williams embracing the spotlight with minimal or no support that really make Marlon Williams shine. Regular live set-piece ?When I Was a Young Girl? – Williams? take on Virginia folk standard ?One Morning In May?, which entered broader public consciousness as an Alan Lomax recording – is a crowning example.
Trying to tease out some kind of bright, stylistic thread here is like throwing a fistful of cornflour at a ghost. Opener ?Hello Miss Lonesome? has the hallmarks of a classic Western theme, harkening back to the classic film and TV title tunes of Frankie Lane a la ?Champion the Wonder Horse?. It canters along at a fair clip as Williams? vocal swings between country coo and hillbilly howl, while backing vocals conjure a cast of thousands kitted-out in chaps and spurs. Following track and Davidson co-write ?After All? is a pop jaunt reminiscent of The Beatles circa Help!, while single ?Dark Child? (penned by fellow New Zealander Tim Moore) is a meandering, fatalistic indie rock cut that builds toward an excoriating climax. ?My little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy / One day you’ll grow up and be distressed,? Williams soughs. Following that, Williams? take on pop crooner Billy Fury’s 1965 hit ?Lost Without You? is a cinematic heartbreak song painted in strings and sputtering drums in broad, panoramic strokes.
Subsequent tracks draw more explicitly on Williams? country-folk leanings. ?Lonely Side? is a rambling love song to a troubled soul, while ?Silent Passage? (originally recorded by unsung Canadian folk hero Bob Carpenter), with its gentle fiddle and lap-steel parts, has the cadence of a slow, heartsick country ballad. Single ?Strange Things? is so much haunted house weirdness with spectral atmospherics and ghostly fiddle: ?She left me alone in a seven-bedroom home built upon the bones of fallen soldiers,? Williams mewls. Defiant sign-off ?Everyone?, which features such bitter pills as ?Goodbye all you dealers, the cold ones, and the feelers / Dreamin? just gives glory to the grave,? rounds out an impressive, free-ranging release from a singer-songwriter already seasoned beyond his years.
####Marlon Williams’ self-titled album is out now on digital and CD through Caroline, available to order at Marlon’s [website](http://www.marlonwilliams.co.nz/).