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. Williams' voice has a haunting quality, elegant and romantic, reminiscent of a crooning style that hasn't been popular for over 60 years.
At times Williams nearly overdoes it — he's transformed Billy Fury's "I'm Lost Without You" into an oddly sepia-toned, sweeping string arrangement — but ultimately, it's for the better that he takes these chances. Some of the album's best moments are when Williams branches out into glammy, noirish cinematic roots-rock, as on "Dark Child" (co-written with William's childhood choir friend Tim Moore), where guitar feedback stands in for the sirens at the climax of the tragedy, yet he's equally adept at penning beautifully understated ballads, as "Lonely Side Of Her" with Aldous Harding readily demonstrates.
It will be interesting to see what direction Williams takes his next album in — I'd put money on more blues and rock. His voice inhabits various characters, but it would be even more compelling to hear him land on one that feels convincingly his own. (Dead Oceans)