|Jess Williamson — Native State |
Jess Williamson — Native State
≡ The album at first listen is nothing spectacular due to the fact that, besides Jess Williamson’s voice, it does not bring a fresh air into the genre. However, as the album began to unfold before me, it became a kaleidoscope of other artists. I hate to use the word genuine but when you listen to her, it will feel as if she knew you were waiting to see and greet her into your life.
Location: Austin, Texas
Album release: January 28, 2014
Record Label: Brutal Honest
01. Blood Song (5:14)
02. Native State (4:14)
03. Medicine Wheel (4:19)
04. Spin The Wheel (4:17)
05. Field (2:26)
06. You Can Have Heaven On Earth (4:58)
07. Seventh Song (2:52)
≡ Williamson’s vocal style is on the boundaries of people like Bjork and Lene Lovich but more fine tuned and accessible, but she sings sometimes with an accent that might lead to occasional difficulty in understanding the lyrics, but it’s not so hard. When you do, especially with a song like “Spin The Wheel”, it almost comes off like a confessional you’re not meant to hear:
“my pride was a mountain and yours, a little bird
I stand alone and strong beside you, you’d sing anywhere you’re hurt
you got to spin the wheel every morning
and if madness or artifice come as a warning
forget what they told ya, it gets cold in California
but the women there, with the flowers in their hair
will wrap you in White Owls”
By Lindsay Zoladz; January 30, 2014; Score: 7.4
≡ "“Maybe I am just the devil’s girl,” Austin native Jess Williamson sang in one of her early songs, each word croaked like something drifted up from the underworld. Williamson’s particular strain of folk is at once earthy and gothic, often seeming haunted by some invisible, vaguely tortured presence — a guitar creaks like an old staircase; the occasional pedal steel lick blows by like a sudden, inexplicable draft. Her songs are loosely structured and rarely have what you’d call verses and choruses; she prefers instead to let them unfurl into strange and twisted shapes. Sometimes she sounds like Angel Olsen or Joanna Newsom, but more often she sounds like a coyote — lonesome and half-rabid, howling into the sparse landscapes of her songs and then pausing, as if she’s waiting for an echo.
≡ Williamson’s debut full-length Native State is only seven songs long, but it unfolds at an unhurried pace that makes it feel expansive. She wrote it shortly after leaving New York City for her hometown of Austin (she describes that change as a “period of turning inward and spending a good deal of time alone”), and, fittingly, these songs luxuriate in slow rhythms, compositional elbow room, and moments of quiet introspection. The stirring, macabre opener “Blood Song” begins as though it’s being sung by a sleepwalker (“Who can say what’s really real when there’s a veil between what you kinda see and what you kinda feel”), but it gathers force and vividness as the song moves on. Like Williamson’s most powerful songs, “Blood Song” gives you the impression that you are watching someone weaving on a loom in reverse: as time goes on patterns unravel, solid ground disappears, and by the end the the very bones of the thing lay exposed."
≡ There’s never a shortage of the kind of music Williamson makes. Every generation has its own crop of banjo-wielding mystics singing about astrology, medicine wheels, and long-haired ladies, and — blame so-called hipster culture’s antique shop fetishism, or maybe just the commercial viability of Marcus Mumford — that lane feels particularly crowded right now. But that makes it that much more impressive that Native State stands out among this ever-refreshing crowd. Williamson is particularly good at braiding together nostalgia for the past with a gimlet-eyed (and often bitingly self-aware) view of the present moment. (There’s humor here, occasionally, so subtle and cutting that you might miss it: “I thought I saw something real in Barcelona, in Brooklyn/ But I’ve learned the power now of manic delusions.”) She paints scenes of “moon-bathing ladies” and measures time by Saturn’s orbit, but then chases these lines with expressions of such plainspoken clarity that they almost knock you off your feet: “Here I am at 25 and I can’t sign a lease,” she admits in the last song. “Mostly I’ve survived off people being nice to me.”
≡ Native State is often quite dark, so the last two songs — aside from “Blood Song”, perhaps the best she’s released yet — pop up like the first shocks of green in springtime. “You Can Have Heaven on Earth” is a warm, banjo-driven ode to nature (“Try as we must to touch what surrounds us/ All of us thinking what we can’t photograph, we can sing”), but all of the themes of the album really come together in the short, sprightly closer “Seventh Song”. It’s a song about finding a balance between solitude and codependence, between barrelling forward and standing still. Native State is a document of a restless spirit, a wanderer continually searching for the landscape that will best match the thoughts — and the songs — that rattle inside her. But she never romanticizes her wanderlust: She realizes that the very drive that moves her forward could easily result in a lifetime of dissatisfaction. The wisdom of “Seventh Song”, then, is how to find peace in stillness — even if it’s only temporary. You can almost hear the hum of the highway beckoning in the background, but in the album’s final line, she’s found the thrill of its opposite: “Do you know how holy it is/ Just to sit quietly with someone?” (http://pitchfork.com/)
By Mickey White; January 24, 2014; Score: 7.5
≡ Country music gets a bad rap these days. And I’ll spare you a rant about how suburbanites have co-opted country and to them, the boonies are what the ‘hood was some 10 years ago. The point is that there’s a steady stream of very creative groups that play some sort of offshoot of country that I can recall being fairly recent. Personal favorites include Blitzen Trapper and Bill Callahan. Heck, even Kacey Musgraves got some praise from critics last year for her Liz Phair-ian qualities. Native State is another relatively fresh take on country/folk music that sees Williamson’s well-paced delivery and stream of consciousness over a cello, bass and banjo.
≡ If there’s anything that sets the tone for this LP, it’s that Jess Williamson didn’t throw herself into the Austin music scene upon returning from school in New York, where she attended Parsons The New School for Design. Instead, she slowed down and did a lot of self-reflection. The result is a strikingly personal album that deals with who Jess Williamson is at her core. So yes, Native State is a very introspective album. ≡ It’s also ripe with themes that can be applied universally. Particularly, its mediations on coming of age.
≡ Aside from her lyrics, Williamson stands out for her voice. It’s a raspy alto and at times, is reminiscent to Alanis Morissette. The latter trait is most evident in the standout closer, “Seventh Song”. However, Williamson is increasingly comfortable in her own skin and it shows by the tone of her voice.
≡ Also, I commend the cover art on this LP. It’s a hand lazily perched on top of a part of a what I would assume is a woman’s body, quite possibly Williamson’s. The part of the body is hard, if not impossible, to make out and her fingernails stand out. ≡ The background in the picture is hazy. The body on the cover might be naked. It’s rather intriguing and a befitting of a person who has attended an art school.
≡ This is definitely a good foot to start off on for Jess. Well at least from an albums standpoint, you can buy her 2011 EP, Medicine Wheel/Death Songs from her Bandcamp site. But I digress. Native State warrants the buzz around it. There’s plenty to like about Williamson’s folksy music. It’s safe to say she made the right choice in pursuing music. Definitely give this a listen if you are into alternative country. Austin, Texas, you did it again. Fortaken: http://norridgemadenoise.wordpress.com/
By Kevin Allen; January 29th, 2014
≡ The title track to Jess Williamson’s Native State begins with her playing two-finger banjo, a technique that’s worlds away from trendier styles like Scruggs style (with its breakneck arpeggios) and clawhammer (with its galloping backbeat). In the two-finger style, the player picks out a melody with the pad of her thumb while droning on the bottom string with her forefinger; the effect is something distinctively unhurried, meandering like some Appalachian wanderer. It’s a style that leaves cavernous room between the plucked notes — and as these notes are left to breathe and sing and resonate within the drum head, the spaces between them meld into ghost tones that sound off in hypnotic rhythm. It’s a very cool effect.
≡ Now, I hope I’m not dwelling on minutiae here, but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, Williamson’s banjo style seems especially pertinent. Seeger’s 1948 instructional booklet, How to Play the Five-String Banjo, did immeasurable work towards popularizing the instrument, perhaps in part because it taught a simplified version of clawhammer, a style that’s instantly compelling, rhythmic, and fit for vocal accompaniment. Two-finger banjo is more for sitting down than getting down, and so it never really took off in the American psyche.
≡ Yet Williamson’s sonic seed tells volumes about her musical universe. The album progresses slowly, ploddingly, with the patience of an Indian raga. On opener “Blood Song,” a fingerpicked electric guitar enters the stage near the front, pauses, then dances about; in the back left, a slide acoustic interjects color commentary. Only a sparse handful of instruments appear in each scene, yet with each new instrument, the stage becomes deeper and wider and taller; it becomes as expansive and calm as the air beneath a blanket of stars.
≡ These songs generally swell and recede at an unhurried pace, meditatively, yet a few curious shifts — drops, if you will — populate the album. On “Spin The Wheel,” for example, a stormy mix of electric guitar, cymbals, and wine-glass synth yields suddenly to brilliant electric organ chords and a lilting boom-chick. “Now they’re singin’ all mornin’, now they’re singin’ all night,” Williamson sings and repeats, giving in finally to the temptation to craft an easy refrain out of her oft-quotable lines.
≡ Which brings us to her vocals. Williamson wraps her mouth around words in peculiar ways, certainly; she sounds occasionally like she’s holding marbles in her throat. The melodies she chooses are likewise idiosyncratic; she bounds around upon scales, popping in and out of falsetto. But for all the weirdness, her voice captivates, and her lyrics hit hard. Atop these dark and wistful soundscapes, her cloudy alto oscillates from a croak to a caterwaul, holding the listener rapt all the way. Take this album all at once, because a song or two just won’t do — this is a singular sonic exploration, and at just under thirty minutes, it’s over before you know it. (http://ovrld.com/)
BY LUKE WINKIE, FRI., MARCH 14, 2014; Score: ***
≡ The seven songs on Native State, Austin folkie Jess Williamson's debut, arise from a period of transition. Leaving New York and headed back to her hometown, she carries a banjo and gravel-etched guitar to back her unadorned, itchy voice, which bobs and weaves through the plucks. She floats among subdermal thumps on "Field" and happily invokes shivers on "Medicine Wheel." She's a folkie, a bit hippie, but don't hold that against her. This compositional cache is its own quiet microuniverse, with fertile ground and wooden walls. I like the way she says, "And I can't be enough, when we're not in love, but I'm picturing your mother" ("Blood Song"). Not exactly a scarcity of men and women with guitars these days, but good songs are good songs. (8pm, Parish Underground) Fortaken: http://www.austinchronicle.com/
By Elizabeth Morales on February 4, 2014
Photo credit: Matthew Genitempo
|Jess Williamson — Native State |