Tag Archives: Dog Leap Stairs

Kathryn Williams/Astrid Williamson @ Sydenham Arts, 15/04/16

Two artists I’ve seen play before, in the same venue, at different gigs, in 1998 and 2001 – half a lifetime ago.

Astrid Williamson I saw, billed only as Astrid, supporting the Unbelievable Truth at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre. I was, I guess, 16. I’m 34 now. I’ve written about my teenage enthusiasm for the Unbelievable Truth’s first album before; it took me up to London in the company of two schoolfriends on a Sunday night to the university I hoped to be attending 18 months later to see my first sit-down concert (as opposed to the stand-up-and-bounce-around sort of show – I’d been to several of those).

In the intervening years, I’d not thought often about Astrid Williamson, whose music struck me as pleasant but unremarkable. Back then, her label seemed to be hoping that a mix of adult-oriented songwriting with gentle beats would appeal to the Beth Orton fans. It was too limited a market, probably; it didn’t happen. Her days of being pitched to a pop audience ended.

Last night she played nothing that could really be construed as a pop song, though the market dictates that she release singles and try to get airplay. She mentioned some success she’s having with 6 Music, and the song she said is going to be her next single, Scattered, was the highlight of the set for me: a soulful piano ballad in 6/8 time with, in its recorded version, an emotionally raw vocal. I can’t see it getting much daytime airplay (frankly it’s much too raw vocally; naked to the point where the listener will turn away if unable to embrace it), but it’s a fine piece of writing, the best thing I’ve heard by her.

Headliner Kathryn Williams was promoting Little Black Numbers – her second album, and the one that brought her to wide attention through a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the last time I saw her play. Not a comfortable performer back then, she talked so much between songs that she ran out of time to get to everything on her set list. These days she’s still apt to chat nervously between songs, but in all other ways is a more accomplished performer. In the last few years she’s regained her early-career form after a few years of drift in the mid-noughties, a period unrepresented in her set on Friday; instead it was heavy on songs from Crown Electric and new album Hypoxia, with a couple of very old songs from Dog Leap Stairs and Little Black Numbers.

Hypoxia, is the result of a commission from New Writing North to write some songs inspired by Sylvia Plath, and on the evidence of those she played live, it’s a strong record, full of tangled and frequently dark emotions. Mirrors, which saw Williams, layering vocals with a loop pedal, is one of the finest songs she’s yet written. Cuckoo, a sort of centrepiece song for the record, written from the point of view of Plath’s mother, was particular affecting, although the shouty thing she did midway through the song was a little distracting (it felt too much like a conscious piece of performance to me).

What’s great from the perspective of this fan, though, is to see her taking risks, expanding her palette emotionally, musically and lyrically. I drifted away from Williams’s music in around 2003, and in retrospect it seems a response to a period in her work where she’d stopped moving forward. As I wrote here, Little Black Numbers saw a lot of the rough edges of Dog Leap Stairs being smoothed away, and this coupled with an over-reliance on stock chord sequences tended to make much of her music sound and feel similar. Over the course of Old Low Light, Relations and Over Fly Over, the lack of variation, risk and challenge in her music became palpable.

Possibly she felt the same, as after Leave to Remain (for me the third in a sequence of rather underwhelming records; fourth, if you count covers album Relations) she found new collaborators and left her long-time band behind. Which was tough on Laura Reid and David Scott (her rather excellent former cellist and guitarist), but Neil MacColl, Ed Harcourt and Adrian Utley seem, in their different ways, to have inspired her to reach beyond the comfortable and easy. Hypoxia is extremely uneasy, and reminds you that it was only familiarity that has made Dog Leap Stairs seem familiar and comfortable to me; when I was 16 or 17, it seemed boldly adult and rather unknowable, full of emotions I had no experience of, or even a name for.

I left the gig feeling like Williams’s last two albums are probably the best work she’s ever done, and that the next one may be even better. It was a lovely, intimate gig in a beautiful venue (St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham), and Sydenham Arts did a fantastic job bringing it all together.

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One Part Lullaby – The Folk Implosion

I’ve covered Lou Barlow here before. I’ve covered Wally Gagel’s Production Club project too. But I’ve been pulled back to One Part Lullaby by Barlow’s Folk Implosion project this week, and I just can’t leave it alone. It’s a record I’ve come back to time and again since it was released 15 years ago.

One Part Lullaby came out in the autumn of 1999 and crowned a productive year for Barlow, which began with the release of The Sebadoh, probably the most divisive Sebadoh album. Clean-sounding and focused, it was a long way from Weed Forrestin’. In the robotic, repetitive Flame, the band had a hit single. They even appeared on Top of the Pops. Long-time fans complained, as some had with every release, that they just weren’t the same band that had given us Total Peace in 1991 or Elixir is Zog in 1993. Which was perfectly true – with Eric Gaffney gone and Barlow now concerned with structure and consistency, the band no longer knocked out scrappy little gems that sounded like rough demos for a hit single some other band might be able to make. But then, neither did they produce excrescence like Downmind or Bouquet for a Siren. The Sebadoh might have been just a collection of a dozen mid-tempo, medium-intensity rock songs with an acoustic ballad or two for a modicum of variety, but most of the songs were great. That made up for a lot in my world.

Then came One Part Lullaby, a record that was an artistic triumph and a crushing commercial disappointment.

One Part Lullaby is brightly mixed, astutely arranged and full of hooks. Almost every song has a melody that sticks. On its shiny surface, it’s the pop record that Lou Barlow always had in him if he wanted to focus on craft and delivery and make best use of his collaborators. Yet, listening to it, you’re left with the distinct impression that all is not perfect in Barlow’s yard.

My good time, I feel all right
My ritual followed us to paradise
My blood moves, I feel all right
Don’t touch me ’cause you’re still too much to feel tonight

My Ritual

I can’t be trusted, I’m dust in the wind
I let the weather decide where my day begins
I’m not a rebel of the natural one
I’m in love with the chemical
Following the setting sun

Lost my patience
All that it takes to survive
Watching my mind and my body divide
Why live for a future that never arrives on time?

Leaving heaven below
Go wherever the angels follow

One Part Lullaby

There’s a lysergic undertone to many of the lyrics on the album, and a sense of torpor that feels unnatural, narcotic. All of which is undercut by music that is more intricate, multi-layered and pulling in more directions than anything else Barlow’s ever been involved with, which thrums with the creative energy of two bandmates (Barlow and John Davis) and a producer (Wally Gagel) working at the top of their games.

Were these lyrics meant to be read metaphorically? Were they an attempt to convey actual experience? Were they confessional? An observation of another’s experiences? Who can say?*

Since the success of Natural One (from the soundtrack to the Larry Clark film, Kids), the Folk Implosion had always been a rhythm section-led band and, since their drums came from machines and loops, a bass-led band. Barlow has never claimed to be a great musician, yet he’d developed into an excellent bass player: stripped of the distortion he often used with Sebadoh and Dinsoaur Jr, his lines were revealed as tight and fluid, with power in the low end and definition when he played in higher ranges. A good percentage of the songs seem to have been built from the bass up (My Ritual, Gravity Decides, Merry-Go-Down, No Need to Worry, maybe Kingdom of Lies) and where they that hadn’t been, he inhabits them in ways stylistically of a piece, but without overwhelming them or getting in the way.

Davis, meanwhile, adds sprinklings of acoustic and electric guitar, little counterpoint things (see the second verse of My Ritual), fat lead riffs (again, My Ritual, but also the fuzzy hook on Free to Go and the lead riff on Kingdom of Lies, which is a longstanding favourite of mine), and big layers of all of the above (Someone You Love).

It’s the most closely and successfully that Barlow and a collaborator have worked together, but they had a sympathetic producer too, in Wally Gagel, who had also produced the Dare to be Surprised in 1997, and parts of Sebadoh’s Harmacy. Gagel gives a wide-ranging set songs a recognisable sonic imprint, a big bottom end, lots of focus in the crucial, and sometimes congested mid-range, and a pronounced top end, which suggested a bid for radio success – as did the crass mastering job from Steven Marcussen, which undid a lot of Gagel’s good work. It doesn’t ruin the record, but it’s a shame so many of the prominently mixed drum tracks lose their punch through having been square-waved.

It could have been a big hit record, albeit one that was a little out of step with the types of records that actually were being hits. Maybe if they’d made this in 1997 rather than the spare, often goofy (but very charming) Dare to be Surprised it would have been a big hit. As it was, it was reviewed positively (certainly in Britain) but went nowhere commercially. It sold 20,000 fewer than Surprised had**, which thrilled new label Interscope not a bit. Davis left the band, according to Barlow, as soon as the record was released. Their next album, as the New Folk Implosion, was muted and monochrome, with Imaad Wasif and Russ Pollard filling in for Davis and the drum machine respectively. I saw them in 2001 and they were actually really great, but songs from One Part Lullaby, too layered to be recreated on stage by three musicians (and possibly not Barlow’s favourite bunch after the record had stiffed), were notable by their absence.

One Part Lullaby is a deceptively troubled record, one more substantial than it might initially appear, then. Many of my favourite records from my late teens have paled for me in the intervening years. How could Dog Leap Stairs remain a touchstone once you’ve heard Blue, Paul Simon, and Judee Sill? But One Part Lullaby is still a favourite, not just because it’s a collection of really good songs (and a really good collection of songs, which is not the same thing at all), but because nothing else in my record collection sounds like it, combining early eighties new wave with hip-hop-derived rhythm tracks and singer-songwriter lyrics and chord changes. Whether or not it actually was one part lullaby to two parts fear, it was the right mix.

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Folk Implosion – John Davis (top), Lou Barlow (bottom)

* Doing some research and background reading for this post, but after having written the early paragraphs, I came across this quote from Barlow on the forum he maintains (loobiecore): “John had some very serious mental health issues.. nuff said.. and i was more or less a drug addict.”

** Again, from Barlow’s forum:  “The previous album ‘dare to be surprised’ outsold it by about 20,000 copies”. On another thread he’s more specific: “Dare to be surprised actually outsold it 2:1 (dtbs sold about 50,000, amazing to think of now). When i started working on a follow up to OPL the label (interscope) dropped me when they heard the songs.”

Dog Leap Stairs – Kathryn Williams

For any artist who sticks around for a while, record-making gets to be routine after a time. Just like anything else. But debut records aren’t routine by definition. Their stories usually stand out a little. So it is with Kathryn Williams’ Dog Leap Stairs, which had me spellbound for a year or so after its release in 1999.

With the British music press then briefly focused on a trend they dubbed the ‘new acoustic movement’ (NAM), it was a good year to be a singer-songwriter putting out a debut, so Williams’ timing was right, but the fact that the artists who got national-press exposure of the back of NAM were largely horrible helped, too.

The story behind Dog Leap Stairs has been told often, so let’s get it out the way quickly. It was reportedly recorded for £80, and was released on Williams’ own Caw label. She worked in a greengrocer’s shop, a baby-wear shop and as a cleaner to make ends meet in a pre-minimum wage world. She gained precious exposure through a Nick Drake tribute concert at the South Bank, by the clever ruse of not destroying the song she covered (Saturday Sun), and was the subject of a laudatory write-up and interview in The Times from Caitlin Moran, which is how I, and I suspect much of her early audience, came to hear of her.

A new singer-songwriter with the right influences would have been interesting to me, but it was the DIY nature of her career and her lo-fi recording methods that really got my attention. As a 17-year-old aspiring musician who was cynical about the music industry and his own chances of making a successful living within it, anyone who managed to bypass the industry and attract attention on their own terms was an example to me, a hero even. So I was duly smitten with Dog Leap Stairs.

Fifteen years later, it has lost some of its magic for me. I’d love to be able to claim it’s a masterpiece, and its relative modernity wouldn’t be a barrier to that: I claimed precisely that for Nina Nastasia’s Dogs a couple of weeks ago on this blog. It’s just that Dog Leap Stairs feels too insubstantial for that. It’s only half an hour, and 10 songs, long, but identifying weaker tracks (Night Came, What am I Doing Here?, Lydia) is very possible, and occasionally the lo-fi nature of the recording is double-edged: while Handy benefits from its lack of polish, and you feel like you’re in the room with Williams as she sings to you, Leazes Park, creepy as it is, would have benefited from its drums being plainly audible, rather than an indistinct, barely perceptible background presence.

So why am I talking about a record that I seem to have a lot of reservations about? Well, for its flaws, it was a significant gateway to other artists. But, furthermore, I do think it’s a strong, distinctive, very likeable album.

It has a more pleasing overall shape than Williams’ others by virtue of a couple of outlier songs that don’t share her usual chord sequences (the reliance on simple C/F/G- and D/G/C-type chord sequences that crept in on second album Little Black Numbers has been a major limiting factor on her songs, surprisingly so for an acknowledged fan of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Kurt Cobain, all of whom, in their different ways, expanded the vocabulary of chords and progressions in pop music), or familiar patterns in their tunes. Someone coming to Dog Leap Stairs after having heard Little Black Numbers and third album Old Low Light would likely be surprised not by the album’s lack of sonic clarity, but by the sometimes spiky, unconventional songwriting of Something Like That and the aforementioned Leazes Park.

It’s the last four songs that elevate Dog Leap Stairs above Williams’ other work, and way above the mulch which came out at the same time (the likes of Starsailor and David Gray). Stripped of the fake reverb in which Night Came almost drowns, with Wiliams’ fingerpicking unsteady and somewhat unsure, her voice sometimes dropping into near inaudibility, Handy has an extraordinary presence. Dog Without Wings, meanwhile, is as graceful song about love going wrong as you’re likely to hear; a song that manages the feat of incorporating a glockenspiel without sounding twee.

Fade is the album’s best song, and was the album’s ‘push’ track. Produced, like Leazes Park, by PJ Harvey collaborator Head (as a demo for a record label who wanted to sign her; a good reason not to put too much faith in the ‘recorded for £80’ legend), Fade has Dog Leap Stairs’ most fleshed-out arrangement, with jazzy drums and piano, and a beautiful, sighing chord sequence in the verses (Cmaj7, Em, B7, Em), but once again the lyric is elliptical and sometimes sinister: ‘there’s nothing more sexy than watching someone who doesn’t know their being watched’, Williams concludes at the end of the second verse. The vocal is uncertain, sometimes off key, but I doubt she could deliver a more resonant, haunting one today, no matter how much more conventionally strong her voice has become in the last fifteen years.

The album concludes with a live version of Madmen and Maniacs, an open and vulnerable recording of a song that is itself a plea for openness and vulnerability. It’s a lovely end to the album, the small burst of applause surprising on this most introspective and solitary-sounding record.

It seems extremely unlikely that Uncut’s prediction, ‘In 30 years’ time they’ll be cooing over Dog Leap Stairs with the reverence currently afforded to Nick Drake’s albums’, will come to pass. But now, after confident-sounding single Heart Shaped Stone made the BBC Radio 2 B list in late 2013, is a good time to remember the songwriter Williams started out as, and that her journey, which has in truth been disappointing to this early fan, isn’t over yet and may still lead somewhere exceptional.

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Kathryn Wiliams