Click to hear: “Crime”
Steven Williams’ new CD, Yeah OK, came to me last week with a letter attached that said the album was independently recorded, mastered, and produced by Portland artists. (Rock local!) It went on to say that, while Yeah is not a concept album, it’s meant to be listened to “as a single, 43-minute experience.”
I found this 43-minute experience alternately beautiful, jarring, impressive and strange.
The first track, “Good Idea,” is an appropriate introduction to much that follows. It begins with a siren, tones and blips fading up into the foreground, soon joined by drums recorded from a distance and plucky guitars that intertwine and collapse before the instruments kick in at close volume. After a minute-and-a-half, Williams steps to the microphone, and here the song takes a turn you’re not expecting.
Williams’ vocal style is unique, sometimes to the point of distraction. His tone is actually quite rich, breathy and complex, and he’s got some range. What becomes distracting is his staccato delivery, how he breaks phrases into chunks that don’t always fit quite right, like each word was cut and pasted from another source, another song. As “Good Idea” winds down, the melody begins to sound like it was recorded backwards and then played forwards, and when the music starts to mimic the clipped vocal style, you realize there’s more intention behind Williams’ approach than you first thought.
As Williams goes on to prove with the next track, “Trains,” he and his collaborators are talented musicians equally adept at inventive composition. Guitar, keys, and synthy drums build in a slow, gorgeous crescendo worthy of any Death Cab for Cutie song. But where Ben Gibbard’s voice would effortlessly glide in and out of musical peaks and valleys, Williams’ is hitting the occasional pothole and getting stuck in monotone ruts.
Meanwhile, the music blossoms. This is some of the richest sounding, most skillfully layered, acoustic-indie stuff I’ve heard come out of the local scene since The Ponys made Shishimumu four years ago.
After these two strong songs, Yeah stumbles a bit, and I was almost lost by the time the sixth track came along. But “Crime” is the album’s standout. Williams’ voice finds a new range in an easy near-falsetto reminiscent of Ambulance LTD (a group I have never found myself comparing a Portland band to). The instrumentation is strong throughout this album, but when Williams’ voice finds its place as comfortably as it does on “Crime,” the combination really makes an impression.
Overall, Yeah OK is a strong showing, with many beautiful moments. Though these moments don’t gel easily into a single, 43-minute listening experience, Williams and collaborators Frank Hopkins and Chris Dibiaso – with contributions from about a dozen other local players – have made an album you’ll want to hear again.
And who knows? Maybe Williams’ singing style will grow on you after awhile, like Graham Isaacson’s growling baritone? Stranger things have grown on me.
— Sean Wilkinson
Steven Williams’ CD release party happens Fri., Oct.6, at Acoustic Coffee, 32 Danforth St., Portland, at 7 p.m. Free (all ages). 774-0404.