Naplew Productions, 2010, DD album, 29m 8s, £name your price
(all proceeds donated to the charity Women’s Aid)
I’ve been lucky enough a few times recently to find myself reviewing music that’s motivated by a creative generosity. This is not to say that it involves any expectation of gratitude, but simply that it is presented with total honesty, and a pleasing absence of defensive posing. Eleanor Williams, in her cover art, sits upright, leaning slightly forward, with an open stance that conveys precisely the openness and directness of her music.
In the performances recorded here Williams’ most notable strength is her singing. She is possessed of a voice that ranges from an ethereal fragility, to a resonant strength, with an impressively secure intonation that sees her around some nice ornaments and melismas, and a deeply musical sense of phrasing. Whether performing her own material, or the two Arlen/ Harburg showtunes, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ and ‘If I Only Had A Brain’, she is a thoughtful vocalist, with the understanding and the resources to unify the lyrical and musical texts into a single self-supporting utterance.
As a lyricist she actually bears a certain passing resemblance to the aforementioned Yip Harburg, using wit and playfulness to say things that are frequently profound, without ever imposing her meanings on the listener. Of course Williams is not working in a high stakes commercial environment, which frees her to address her meanings more directly than Harburg, a committed socialist, could when writing the book for The Wizard Of Oz. Stylistically Williams’ own work hovers somewhere between the tonal-chromatic soundworld of the showtune and the modal-diatonic territory of folksong.
The principal accompanimental voice is Williams’ ukulele, but she is joined on a variety of instruments by the ever creative Marley Starskey Butler (whose Sagan Lane project I reviewed recently). The arrangements are mainly simple, with additional parts that do not intrude on the intimate relationship between Williams’ hands on the strings and her vocal cords, but they are highly imaginative, and make as much use of ambient or environmental sounds as they do of conventional harmonic or rhythmic reinforcement.
The album opens with a snippet of conversation and noodling, to position the listener in the session, and immediately destroys the usual separation and distance between performer and audience: obviously, we can’t join the conversation directly, but it feels as though we are invited to, particularly as the opening song is so informal. That engagement continues right through to the end of the epic folksong that closes the album.
This is a very unassuming album. It reads very much like someone playing for their own pleasure: it is chamber rather than stage music, and is ‘amateur’ in the truest sense of the word. But I say it ‘reads’ that way rather than it ‘sounds’ that way, because it is delivered with a great deal of musical skill that is anything but amateurish. I’ve already spoken about the vocal performances, but the instrumental work delivers simple parts played with relaxed precision and a sweet tone. Everything is well suited to its role in the proceedings, doing just enough and no more. The music has an under-the-radar quality, smuggling its accomplishment past the listener’s snoozing faculties. Should you choose to pay it the attention it deserves, but never demands, you’ll find a lot of attention to detail, some lovely melodies, crafty, oblique lyrics, and a warm buoyancy that provokes thought and pleasure in equal measure.