Thursday 27 May 2021

A. A. Williams - Songs from Isolation (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's what we could safely call another COVID album, by which I mean a release created at home in 2020 during lockdowns imposed to help restrict the spread of COVID-19. However, in another time and another place, this would just be a vocal album. It used to be that singers spent most of their time not singing their own material, though they often wrote too, but reinterpreting work by others that their listeners generally knew well. Judy Collins still makes a good living at it.

It doesn't happen as often nowadays but there's become something of a trend of singers reinventing songs from diverse genres, often in a stripped down style. You probably know Johnny Cash's version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, but check out Tori Amos's version of Raining Blood or pretty much anything by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, starting with Love Will Tear Us Apart. And into this trend steps A. A. Williams, with an album she recorded at home in London during lockdowns, uploading them one at a time to her YouTube channel and even taking requests.

It's an interesting selection, mostly trawled from indie pop and rock albums, often singles, from a ten year period from the late eighties to the late nineties. The only two songs earlier than 1988 are much earlier: Nights in White Satin, which the Moody Blues put out in 1967, and If You Could Read My Mind, which Gordon Lightfoot released in 1970; and the only song newer than 1997 is a Nine Inch Nails track from 2005, Every Day is Exactly the Same. I knew many of these, but not all of them, so this isn't close to the obscure choices Monster Magnet made for A Better Dystopia but it's still discovery for me.

Williams strips all these down to voice and piano, adding loops to a few songs too, though in at least one instance, Nick Cave's Into My Arms, the song was already stripped down and she actually bulks it up a little by floating a texture behind it, though keeping it bare and personal. I really liked this bare approach she takes, because her voice is strong and resonant but also vulnerable, a breathy vibrato adding emotion whenever she employs it, but also because her piano playing accompanies her voice with a similar level of dynamic play. In her hands, it isn't just an instrument to play notes. She totally gets what else it can do.

Like Susanna and the Magical Orchestra's Melody Mountain album, this is a release to absorb over a period of time to let seep into your soul. Like that album, everything is worthy but it's not difficult to call out highlights, but what I call out might not be what you call out. It'll depend on which songs, in a stripped down format like this, speak to you personally and which just don't feel right to your take on a song you already know.

For instance, I knew the Gordon Lightfoot song here well, but Williams brings something entirely new to it. It feels like her song now, in the sense that Johnny Cash took ownership of Hurt, The Mercy Seat and Rusty Cage just by singing them. However, I don't know the Cure well at all, so Lovesong is new to me and it still spoke to me. Both are haunting songs in this form, even though I knew one and not the other. I'd call Where is My Mind? a highlight too, originally a Pixies song, though she isn't able to hide the original behind her version.

However, I didn't like her take on Radiohead's Creep, because I don't feel that her breathy vibrato fits the song. It comes across tremulous and uncertain on this one, though it works well in contrast, as she manages to build magnificently away from it and then back to it. On the flipside, that same approach is one reason why her take on Nights in White Satin works so well. That's so timeless and iconic that it really isn't easy to cover it, but Williams makes it seem effortless. I'm still impressed at how she took If You Could Read My Mind so easily, because it really isn't that different a version to the original, but it's different enough in just the right ways to work so well.

One thing I realise here is that the five songs I've called out are the first five on the album and that's not deliberate on my part. Maybe it helps that I know four of them well, while I only really know Into My Arms from the second half, but they seem deeper to me. I know that Porcelina of the Vast Oceans has been described as the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins song and it certainly feels deep, but I haven't ever been a big fan of theirs and its depths just don't speak to me. I'll be playing this a lot, so I'll see if the second half grows on me the way the first half did from the outset, but I'm well aware that it may work the other way round for you. Either way, this is well worth checking out.

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