Kathryn Williams and Neill MacColl: Two

[10 June 2009]

By Steve Horowitz

Fanfares and Huzzahs

Songstress Kathryn Williams has a deceptively gentle and whispery voice that initially disguises just how big and bold her imagination really is. The former Mercury Music Prize-nominee is joined here by a scion of the royal English folk family, singer and guitarist Neill MacColl (son of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, half brother of the late, great Kirsty MacColl). The two fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and the result yields a complex aural picture of great beauty and fine design.

Reportedly, the two musicians got together for a week and wrote 22 songs, about half of which ended up here on their first album together. The acoustic songs are whimsical and wonderful, but also have the tensile strength of polished steel and can stab you to the heart before you even know the blade has been unsheathed from the hilt. The subsequent pain is not necessarily a bad thing. It lets you know you are alive.

Or, as Williams and MacColl tenderly harmonize, “Holes in your life / Maybe it’s the only way the light gets in”. They understand that a life worth living is one filled with aches and stings, but in the long run this yields greater pleasure than one safely lived. Hurt is not the opposite of love, but a requisite feature of the emotion. This can be felt not only in the words, but in the voices and playing of the two musicians.

Williams has the stronger vocal presence on the album. While she sings in quiet tones, her dulcet voice commands attention through its hushed tranquility. That makes it all the more surprising when one realizes what she is actually singing, such as when just after listing a string of beautiful metaphors about her love on “Armchair” she breaks into the syrupy chorus of “I’ll sweeten you like sugar / When the world has been fucking with you”. The shock of the coarse language doesn’t register until afterwards, while she’s on the next verse declaring her abiding affection.

At times, MacColl doesn’t even seem to be present. He never sings lead, but that doesn’t diminish his importance. Instead, this makes his attendance all the more notable and rewarding, as on the haunting “6am Corner”, where he spectrally appears like the sun behind clouds that quietly warms and brightens the scene. His voice lets the listener know that while the singer may sound lonely, she’s never really alone.

MacColl’s voice is strongest on the one cover, a music box-precise version of Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream”. The two do the song credit, but their original compositions steal the show. The lyrics are literate without being pretentious, painterly without being arty, observant without being nit picky. In other words, the songs are really cool and hip, and this is acoustic folk music we are talking about. Cool and hip aren’t words usually associated with folk music, but this isn’t your mother and father’s folk music, even if they were legends in the field.

Two is a remarkable disc. The material’s quiet beauty and the duo’s delicate performances make the special qualities of the music easy to overlook. The artistry sighs instead of screams. This is the kind of magical album that too often goes unnoticed or ignored because of the music is so understated. That would be a shame, because the triumph of Two should be met with fanfares and huzzahs.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/73869-kathryn-williams-and-neill-maccoll-two/