It’s hard to be a poppy female singer-songwriter these days. Not only is mainstream culture somewhat hostile to folk-pop with insightful lyrics, but those who dominate the genre do it so well that it requires an exceptional set of chops or a dazzling life story to rise to the top. Astrid Williamson has a story on which she can capitalize, being a Scottish, classically-trained vocalist. But on Here Come the Vikings, the specialness just doesn’t come through as much as it could. Plus, any album with Vikings in the title and song titles as lofty as “Sing the Body Electric” and “How You Take My Breath Away” should be memorable.
Ultimately, Williamson doesn’t rise above the average singer-songwriter. Her songs are more invested in melody and less in lyrics than in artists like Antje Duvekot. This lends them a poppy edge, but the poppiness isn’t especially catchy. The moments when she succeeds at being memorable are unique and charming—though “How You Take My Breath Away” is a ballad, it’s far catchier than many of the more upbeat numbers on the album, proving that slow can be as successful as fast when it comes to creating blissful pop music. This track is also one of a scant few that really showcases her voice, letting her stretch the lyrics out in into lovely, incantatory lines rather than compressing them into quick pop measures. The violins also do nice work here and complement her well.
The following track, “Crashing Minis”, is a nice continuation of her voice’s chance to show itself off. The sounds of sirens and the appearance of trumpets make this song stand out more than many of the other tracks as well, though the musical layers are sometimes a bit convoluted. Still, there’s a haunting quality to her voice as she sings “Don’t you feel / Feel for me” over all the musical traffic.
Some moments are quite interesting—“Slake” opens with Williamson talking over the music, while wailing melodically in the background. The music is slightly more minimal in this song than elsewhere, which works in the song’s favor, but even less electric guitar would make Williamson’s biggest asset—her voice—come alive. “Slake” could well take a hint from “Eve”, which features more prominent trumpets and Williamson’s slinkiest sounds to date.
It’s those successful moments that make the rest of the album a bland, frustrating experience. “Sometimes I think I love you / Sometimes I think I don’t”, for example, is the height of her lyrical insight in “Falling Down”. Similarly, “Sing the Body Electric” sounds more like it’s about a body that’s barely battery-operated; aside from hearing some nice touches of her accent coming through, the best parts of this song get lost under its too-heavy production. “Shut Your Mouth” is a trainwreck that makes it surprising that Williamson is able to pull off the couple of gorgeous moments that she does manage. If she wants to rise above mediocrity, she’ll have to not shut her mouth at all, but open it so the full beauty of her voice can unfold in an uncluttered soundscape.
// Notes from the Road
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