Astrid Williamson: Pulse

The wispy-voiced Scottish singer-songwriter delivers her fifth solo album, an ambient slow burner with moments of brilliance.

Astrid Williamson


Label: One Little Indian
US Release Date: 2011-08-16
UK Release Date: 2011-08-22

When I was in college, I had a lot of girl friends who performed in student dance groups. I'd go to the shows sometimes, and, since I have little to no interest in dance, a lot of my attention naturally gravitated toward the music choices. You'd hear a smattering of various genres -- rap, mainstream pop, dubstep, dance mashups -- but without a doubt, the most common thing you'd hear was a very specific type of music: slow, reverb-heavy, vaguely industrial ballads with looped beats. I've come to refer to it as "college student dance group music", for lack of a better descriptor. Plenty of artists, good and bad, have either dabbled or made their name in CSDG music; Seal, for one, or Imogen Heap.

The reason I talk about this kind of music is that nearly every song on Pulse, Scottish singer-songwriter Astrid Williamson's fifth album, is guaranteed to end up as background music to sociology majors reaching up at the ceiling and doing weird quasi-yoga in blackbox theaters, for better or worse. Williamson began her career as the frontwoman for the energetic indie rock group Goya Dress in the '90s, but on Pulse, Williamson works entirely in haunted sonic landscapes populated by echoing pianos and ambient noise, resulting in a sound that's at turns boring and captivating.

Williamson enlisted the help of Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams for Pulse, and Eno's influence is certainly felt here. In its quieter, sparer moments, the album evokes Eno's "Music for Airports" as well as contemporary ambient artists like Akira Kosemura. On "Connected", the centerpiece of the album, Williamson's lilting, understated vocals whisper out a measured folk melody over a rich piano-guitar waltz; and the beautiful album closer "Paperbacks" has Williamson harmonizing with herself over an economical piano line, marveling at "How it feels / To be loved."

Other times, though, the broad, empty spaces Williamson employs can be enervating. "Underwater" and "Husk", two glacial, overwrought ambient ballads with lyrics out of a high school poetry class ("I am winter," begins "Husk"), squander Williamson's delicate vocals. The difference between a song like "Paperbacks" and a song like "Underwater" is difficult to define but undeniable; you get the impression that the former is coming from Williamson's heart, while the latter feels more like a tired genre exercise.

That's not to say that the whole album is populated with darkness and scarcity. "Cherry", seemingly aware (despite being a song and, therefore, incapable of thoughts and ideas) of the slogfest called "Underwater" that precedes it, plays like a mellowed-out tUnE-yArDs jam, complete with psychedelic guitar riffs, tribal percussion, chirpy harmonies, and even a theremin-sounding synth solo. And the self-titled track, which is the closest thing Pulse has to a traditional single, hews closer than anything else on the album to the post-Alanis pop-rock she made on her early records.

All told, Pulse is less of a game-changer for Astrid Williamson than it is a bit of a paradigm shift. She's immersed herself even more fully into the ambient soundpool, a move that's put her voice front-and-center but also limited her range a bit. When everything comes together, Williamson's music is moving and nuanced in a way few of her peers achieve; and even when she allows herself as a songwriter to be fettered by ominous, haunted sonics, it can still be exciting to listen to the growing pains of an artist working through some new ideas. And let's face it: if you're going to have to sit through a crappy student dance show, there are much worse things you could be listening to than this.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.