Brighton songwriter’s debut LP is an expert exercise in control and restraint.
Daniel Ross 2012
Woodpecker Wooliams is the horribly twee stage name of Brighton songwriter Gemma Williams. An immediate (and obvious) comparison point is Florence Welch – it's all tremulous of vocal, harp-accompanied and trading heavily on the listener's tolerance for dark subject matter – but only at a superficial level. This is not a big-lunged sprint to a euphoric climax aimed at zinging the festival crowds. Not even close.
So, that lesson about restraint is fully learned and digested when one appreciates just how delicately crafted this debut LP is. From start to finish, The Bird School of Being Human feels like it could topple into encompassing electronic drone at any moment, a fantastically omnipresent threat to that twinkling harp. What's so good about it as that Williams doesn't let it take over until the song really deserves or needs it.
The opener, Red Kite, is searing in effect without ever going far above a whisper. The harshness of the tale told and the bizarre innocence of Williams’ toying, playful harp gradually give way to some throaty bass clarinet, but this is most definitely a triumph of quietude over bombast. The same goes for the following Gull (all of the tracks are named after avian species), which rattles with repressed energy. Besides that, and the remarkably pretty harp line, Gull is perhaps most notable for containing the most menacing request for a cup of tea ever committed to tape.
Even when the record perks up, like on the clanging Sparrow, it never feels like a concession to accessibility. Williams’ trump is that no song suffers merely because it would be easier to lob in a chorus. When it gradually (and at exactly the correct moments) descends into confrontational noise, it’s because the music requires it, whether by virtue of the squirming lyrical constructs or just because things have been too sweet until then.
Again, the lesson is that sometimes you have to make the listener wait, and Woodpecker Wooliams seems to know exactly how long that wait needs to be. Compositionally, it’s assured and well-tempered. Musically and emotionally, it’s belting.