21st February 2018
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Fifth album from isles songstress

Pulse, CD by Astrid Williamson. One Little Indian Records.

There are those in the arts and media who exploit their Shetland connections, whether deep-rooted or recently acquired, but it could not be said of Astrid, despite growing up in the islands until her early teens and having a Shetland father. Pulse, her fifth solo album, contains nothing to hint at her roots, not even the scraping of a fiddle here and there, despite being no slouch herself on that instrument and several others.

We have five copies of Astrid’s new album Pulse to be won in our competition. All you have to do is answer the following question correctly and send your entry by post to Astrid competition, The Shetland Times, Gremista, ZE1 0PX or in an email supplying your address to j.robertson@shetlandtimes.co.uk. The deadline is Wednesday 2pm.

Question: Astrid can play lots of instruments but which one is she classically trained in?

In truth, Astrid is a sophisticated urban songstress who has flirted with success from her intelligent love songs for over 15 years, living in London and now Brighton, mixing with the nation’s weird and wonderful rock musos. Next month she’s off to Poland to tour again with the other-worldly genius that is Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance.

The sound of Pulse is planets distant to any other album with a Shetland connection and represents a brave leap into space for her. It is the chic lovechild of a musical flirtation with ambient composer and guitarist Leo Abrahams who brought his suite of spacey electronica sounds along to weld onto Astrid’s feminine and thought–ful piano and guitar-based love songs. Debate will rage as to whether it works. You should be able to gauge after the first two songs: are the bleeps and bongs irritating blights on pretty songs or do they lend them a captivating extra dimension?

She can always re-release a stripped-down version, sans extran–eous clatter, as a collectors’ item in 2021.

There is a sense of airiness about the songs even though they are peppered with Abrahams’ em–bellishments. Long stretches of Dance and Husk are so musically minimalist, with only sporadic and incidental backing, that Astrid is left to propel the entire melody with her voice.

Pulse’s short and stimulating 38-minute journey of exploration contains beautiful passages. Some critics have got themselves excited about Reservation, which is a strangely chilling and vaguely dizzying song dominated by a Lennonesque reverb-drenched piano chord sequence.

But the stand-out is perhaps Pour with its haunting little piano riff which is probably asking to be stolen and rehashed for an advert or TV soundtrack. Yet this desolate little gem has, for some unfathomable reason, been stripped from the remixed version of the song released as a single earlier this month and which can be heard and seen on video all over the internet.

Astrid’s chances of success should receive another sizeable boost from having a track featured on the monthly album given away with the national music magazine The Word. Pulse’s mood has been compared (by her publicists) to early Joni Mitchell married to Talk Talk (presumably their minimalist late period) but while there is a grain of truth about the latter she is probably closer to Debbie Harry or Sarah Mclachlan as a singer than to the one-and-only Joni. The Mclachlan feel on piano and vocals is strongest on the closing piece, Paperbacks. Mind you, Astrid has a rack of voices she can choose from and, alarmingly for this listener, she can do a convincing croaky Marianne Faithful, notably on Cherry.

More often she is restrained, almost to a whisper and, unlike on previous albums, only rarely powers-up her voice to its full force.

While it is a radical departure from the more conventional pop of previous Astrid albums there is still room for a couple of relatively straight-forward numbers, the spiralling Miracle, which possesses another cute little piano motif, and the title track Pulse. They come either side of the delicate lullaby Connected, which harbours yet another pretty piano phrase – this one with just four notes – that burrows into your brain.

It is a tricky album to get a grip on and will require a discerning listener to appreciate. I have a recurring image of a switched-on 30-something woman blasting it from her Suzuki Swift as she whizzes to and from the office. If you have an open mind and you stick with it you do become strangely attached.

John Robertson

About John Robertson

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