Release Date: Feb 19, 2016
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
New Zealand’s Marlon Williams is a storyteller, a traveler and lyrically wise beyond his 25 years. Impacted by his time in choir, studying classical music and his father’s past in a punk band, you could imagine the variety of influences that have transpired through his self-titled debut. Through a mix of country, soul and classic rock, Williams muses through tales of love, loss and isolation on his solo release.
Marlon Williams, the 24-year-old country/bluegrass singer from Lyttleton, New Zealand has signed to Dead Oceans for the worldwide release of his self-titled debut album, following a domestic debut last spring in New Zealand where it reached number four in the charts and subsequently received five New Zealand Music Award nominations. The national acclaim he’s had is hardly surprising: it only takes a split-second to be won over by the power of his unusually well-crafted country voice. He recalls the likes of Elvis, and Willie Nelson, and Neil Young without aping any of them.
On his exceptional self-titled debut, New Zealand's Marlon Williams quickly establishes a classic sound that recalls a different era. Over the course of this slim nine-song collection (and, refreshingly, without a hint of a fake southern accent) the songwriter and his Yarra Benders bandmates traverse the gamut of roots and country rock: fast-clipped bluegrass-mariachi-punk ("Hello Miss Lonesome"), British invasion roots-pop ("After All"), vintage Canadiana (a cover of Bob Carpenter's "Silent Passage") and traditional (a dramatic, almost operatic, solo guitar and voice interpretation of "When I Was A Young Girl"). For a singer with a background in Maori music and church choirs, along with the usual suspects (pop/rock, folk, country, blues, soul), Williams' breadth might come as no surprise, but his vocal prowess does, every time.
As a former choirboy turned classical music student whose father was a member of a punk band, Marlon Williams was never going to make a conventional country-rock LP. Sure enough, the New Zealander’s solo debut is part Jeff Buckley, part early rock’n’roll, as underlined by his cover of a Billy Fury song (I’m Lost Without You). Williams’s voice is shown off best on another cover, the folk standard When I Was a Young Girl, every second of which rings true.
It’s hard to work out quite how the debut album from the young New Zealander Marlon Williams manages to be so uplifting. It features covers of Teddy Randazzo’s none-more-woebegone 1964 ballad I’m Lost Without You, and a version of the death ballad When I Was a Young Girl – a traditional number derived in part from the equally miserable folk standards Streets of Laredo and The Unfortunate Rake – alongside originals that don’t ladle on the cheer: “I lost my wife in 1989 to a certain kind of undetectable cancer,” opens Strange Things. But Williams has a delicious lightness of touch, and his take on a mythic America, which blends alt-country, 60s pop and 19th-century folk, never gets bogged down in a quest for authenticity.
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 Upshot: Maori New Zealander who’s rooted in Americana tradition, but not tethered to it, and sounding like the late 1950s moment when Elvis Presley and others broke out from country and gospel into a new kind of pop. Marlon Williams, the spectrally voiced Maori songwriter from Christchurch, New Zealand, broke out down under with the string-band-y Unfaithful Ways and a bluegrass duo with Delaney Davidson. His debut album, out in New Zealand since early 2015, but just appearing here, is rooted in Americana tradition, but not tethered to it, sounding like the late 1950s moment when Elvis Presley and others broke out from country and gospel into a new kind of pop.
Marlon Williams' eponymous solo debut swoons through a versatile landscape of Americana, all the more impressive for the young songwriter's New Zealand roots. Opener "Hello Miss Lonesome" chugs like Marty Robbins on a western trail to the Sixties power-pop of "After All," and Southern gothic "Dark Child" bends an eerily low tenor against a haunting, soaring cover of "I'm Lost Without You." "Lonely Side of Her" and "Silent Passage" tremble high lonesome alongside the stunning take on traditional "When I Was a Young Girl." Americana may find its best representation in the Kiwi's broad reach and inclusive interpretation. (2:15pm, Tito's Handmade Vodka stage) .
Author rating: /10.
Marlon Williams’ self-titled debut is a pleasing take on blues, bluegrass, and folk, but while Williams’ commitment to storytelling and creating a sense of place are admirable, too much of his record comes off as a bit hard to believe, despite rich soundscapes and consistently impressive guitar work. "Hello Miss Lonesome" kicks off the proceedings with a jolt of manic energy and Williams stretching his range to its upper limit. It's a record that you would expect to hear with a southern twang, but Williams’ passionate vocals and the songs uptempo gallop make it a worthwhile ride nonetheless.