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.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
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.
Williams’ best asset here is his voice, a nearly disembodied tenor that floats effortlessly over cavernous reverb in the spookiest, most striking tunes. His version of “When I Was a Young Girl” is chillingly beautiful, framed in simple, acoustic guitar arrangements that allow his odd, androgynous voice to soar. You can make out the traces of his classical training (he spent his youth singing in a boys’ choir) in the effortless, vibrato-laced delivery that would be as at home in a lieder as in this song. Covering songs made famous by Nina Simone ranks alongside spitting in the wind and tugging Superman’s cape in the litany of bad ideas, but Williams’ version stands on its own.
“Dark Child” is similarly haunting, though a tad less spare; Williams brings in back-up singers, multiple guitars and an aching lap steel to augment his echo-shrouded vocals. Still, there’s plenty of space and air in the track, enough to let the loneliness sink into the pauses between lines, enough to fill the spaces between guitar strums with desolation. And yet, there’s a lift near the end, when Williams does his best Roy Orbison, rearing up for the climactic, “I’ve been waiting for you” against a gathering storm of feedback.
It’s not all gothy mooning. Opener “Little Miss Lonesome” is a giddy, rockabilly rave-up, with bluegrass-y picking and hiccup’ed country abandon, while “After All” is mid-1960s power pop only slightly infused with twang. But the songs that stay with you are strange and unearthly, like the slouching 12/8 lament of “I’m Lost Without You,” a 1950s crooner song embellished with strings and ghostly vocal counterparts, a sock hop slow dance infected with death. It’s the weird stuff that’s stirring on this non-native take on American folk and country, the eerie distortions that you get from being outside looking in.
DOWNLOAD: “When I Was a Young Girl” “Dark Child”