Review: Marlon Williams (self-titled album)

Followers of our Church of the Open Sky recordings (look up! You can click directly to them from here!) will already be familiar with the enigmatic sound of Marlon Williams.

Recorded acoustic in an abandoned church full of haybales, 23-year-old Marlon managed to sound both technically perfect and hauntingly authentic, channelling the long-deceased Canadian country singer, Bob Carpenter in his cover of Silent Passage. It’s a stunning rendition of this lost classic, and we just can’t recommend it highly enough. (Please, stop reading this. Go right now and download it from our Church of the Open Sky Page. No, you don’t need your credit card – it’s free. And when you’re done, come back over here and read the rest of this review. I’m not starting again until you’ve done it.)

Right then. Marlon’s been living above Mick Thomas’s pub in Abbotsford, Victoria, doing gigs and festivals and generally living the life of a touring musician. Mick, you’ll recall, is one of Melbourne’s most treasured singer songwriters, the former frontman of Wedding Parties Anything, and another alumnus from our Church of the Open Sky pages. (Don’t tell me you haven’t downloaded his song? Go on, off you go…).

A few months before recording Silent Passage with us, Marlon had returned to his family home in the fabled Christchurch artistic enclave of Lyttelton in April 2014 to record his first solo album with his long-time producer Ben Edwards at The Sitting Room studios. Marlon and Ben had also worked together on The Unfaithful Ways EP and LP and Williams’ three duo albums with Delaney Davidson. “It was the same as it has always been,” says Marlon.

“There are five doors between the studio and mum’s house, so we didn’t leave Hawkhurst Road for the entire recording period, except to get beers”

Recording at home gave Marlon access to old friends and collaborators like The Unfaithful Ways bandmate Ben Woolley on bass and backing vocals, Delaney Davidson on guitar, Aldous Harding on vocals, Joe McCallum on drums, and Anita Clarke on violin.

The Sitting Room studio, like so much of Christchurch’s business and creative communities, has shifted from its original location following the earthquakes. The reinvention has been a success: it’s been thriving in its new home, with owner and operator Ben Edwards turning out acclaimed albums from Aldous Harding, Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson.

Marlon thinks of the place as being cobbled together from pieces of the original studio and an ever-expanding array of new gear. “It’s frequented by Ben’s two dogs and one cat, plus his partner and new baby. I did all the writing in a little glorified doll’s house, which is in between the studio and the house, down the garden path. I would run there in between takes to try to finish songs.”

He’s on record as saying that the aim with this album was to make his voice the centrepiece of his new album.

He felt that no matter how disparate the style got, he could rely on the tone of his voice to weave everything together. And indeed, across an eclectic range of nine country songs, that wine-dark voice of his is the focal point.

From the opening track, an up-tempo streamtrain hollerer called Hello Miss Lonesome, through the broadside chiming of After All, the album opens with arresting verve. Things slow down and consolidate through a string of ballads, culminating in his extraordinary full studio version of Silent Passage.

This album is exquisite, from start to finish. The loss and longing on display here would cost most artists a lifetime of cheap whisky and failed relationships to accumulate. Yet Marlon seems a happy guy. Where it emanated from, in one so young, is just one of those musical mysteries.

Marlon Williams will be released on 24 April in Australia and NZ via Caroline Australia/Universal NZ.

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