After returning home from a spell on the Melbourne music scene and back to New Zealand, Marlon Williams’ debut, recorded in his hometown of Lyttleton, promises to win over fans of country, pop and folk alike. Having been released in the Australasian region in April last year, the album has been deemed “one of the most impressive country records” of 2015 by critics in Australia and showered with praise in New Zealand.
The raucous hoedown “Hello Miss Lonesome” opens the record, and whilst it does not set the tone for the largely acoustic remainder of Williams’ debut, it definitely acquaints the listener with what is perhaps the album’s most notable feature; that is the stirring power of the singer-songwriter’s voice. The awe-inspiring range of both pitch and emotion, accompanied by a vocal style which is as rich as it is haunting recalls the late Israel Kamakawiwo’le. Tracks like, “When I Was a Young Girl” further lead our minds to the down-to-earth quality of his music through thin, strummed accompaniment. There’s something operatic about the way Williams’ voice sores on that track, which, with its broken chord guitar patterns and focus on storytelling, is one of the more folk-influenced of the record. The veracity of pitch, bel canto-style vibrato and pouring out of emotion are certainly not unlike one of Verdi’s more poignant arias. If Williams’ voice alone isn’t enough to win you over, however, the clear influence he has taken from his youthful days as a choirboy surely will be.
The brooding backing vocals on “Strange Things” and “I’m Lost Without You” boast a level of harmonic accuracy seldom seen even in the most hardened country singers of our time. The latter of these tracks combines these harmonies with the upright-style bass and shuffle beat of a mellow Elvis Presley tune. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for thinking the mournful story of lost love, the sliding string accompaniment and climaxing refrain have been taken straight from a hit recorded by the King himself. At the same time, the infusion of synthesized sounds with all-male vocal accompaniment in the instrumental portion of this track ensures that the tune’s sound offers something new for Williams’ listeners.
Those who have fallen in love with Williams’ partiality for both traditional rock and roll and upbeat country influences may be disappointed that from the halfway point onwards, the album is mainly a country ballad affair in which the singer and his guitar take centre stage. Personally, I was looking forward to hearing more of the upbeat flavours of the earlier tracks, but it is pleasing that, in the more sombre setting, Williams’ melodies still allow him to show off his voice’s aptitude for both resonance and acrobatics. I will concede that some of these more subtle musings, including Williams’ cover of Bob Carpenter’s “Silent Passage”, allow the singer of Maori descent to reflect on the spiritual power of home with more credibility, evoking a nostalgia for both singer and listener in the process.
So then, whilst it could have perhaps benefitted from more variety in the latter half, Marlon Williams’ debut release provides a well-considered grounding for what will hopefully be a very fruitful career indeed.