One of New Zealand’s finest musical exports, Marlon Williams has been flaunting his remarkable musicality since fronting acclaimed alt-country band The Unfaithful Ways at the tender age of 17. The impossibly dapper young gentleman has since explored the exciting possibilities of a solo career, an endeavour which has involved a series of duet albums with fellow New Zealander Delaney Davidson, a string of festival appearances and support slots for artists including Robert Ellis, First Aid Kit and Jordie Lane. The Melbourne-based musician returned home to Lyttelton, Christchurch this past year to record his self-titled debut solo LP. Described as “the impossible love child of Elvis, Roy Orbison and Townes Van Zandt,” Williams takes influences of nostalgic rhythm and blues and rock n’ roll, and pairs them with his own brand of well-structured, modern songwriting and that distinctive voice.
At just nine songs, the album is articulate and considered enough that in never feels lacking, nor flailing. William’s return home allowed reunited him with long-time producer Ben Edwards, as well as familiar players including his The Unfaithful Ways band mate Ben Woolley on bass and vocals, Delaney Davidson on guitar, Aldous Harding on vocals, Joe McCallum on drums, and Anita Clarke on violin. There is a familiarity and comfort in this setup that comes through on the album, and allows William’s classicism and that velvety voice to take centre stage.
Williams’ debut explores countless facets of country and rock & roll, from up-tempo hollering anthems, to acoustic balladry. Boot-stomping opener Hello Miss Lonesome pits a thundering male chorus against bellowing guitars and irrepressible percussion, while brooding ballad Dark Child murks in the same shadows whence Nick Cave emerged. Williams makes use of interesting and exquisite phrasing, which takes advantage of his tone and range, in this fittingly dark, and ghostly track.
Elsewhere he offers more subdued balladry from himself and his guitar. The simplistically divine Lonely Side Of Her has the potential to join the ranks of classic country male-female duets, while on Silent Passage Williams is eventually joined by an ethereal chorus of voices and wailing lap slide and weeping violin. Strange Things is a track awash with nostalgia and resounding loss, one that you’d expect came from a man at least 20 years Williams’ senior and infinitely more whiskey bottles deep.
On lonesome ballad Lost Without You, the 23-year-old channels the otherworldliness of 1960s Roy Orbison, triggering the same physical and emotional response in me as Crying still does. Williams’ stunning voice shines, perhaps strongest on album standout When I Was A Young Girl. The simple harmonic structure played out by arpeggiated chords floats under that striking voice, whose perfect pitch and tempered technical skill were trained by the choral experiences of his youth, but whose arresting quality and tone are completely his own.
Williams made sure that through well-crafted song writing, beautiful arrangements, poetry that appropriately makes use of religious undertones, and collaborative ensemble work, his voice remained the album’s focal point that weaves together a tapestry of influences. This is a strong debut from an artist injecting sincerity, vocal virtuosity and timelessness into a genre whose light-hearted side often tends towards the gimmicky.