Like the great British folk singers of the ’60s, Newcastle-based Kathryn Williams sings with a blend of sensitivity and strength that suggests she could break your heart with a ballad before downing five pints of beer and skinning a hare. Seek out her versions of “Candy Says” and “Hallelujah” on 2004′s Relations to hear the subtle power with which she deploys one of English music’s finest voices. Relations is one of several quietly brilliant albums Williams has released since 1999 without ever getting a fraction of the praise afforded, say, Laura Marling. This new project — a trio with Simon Edwards and Ginny Clee, mixed by Portishead’s Adrian Utley — might be just the attention-grabber she needs.
The first half of The Pond enriches supple folk songs with hip-hop loops and whispers of psychedelia. The mood is reflective but unsentimental, with the exceptionally lovely Pass Us By offering a modern twist on the cycle-of-life vibe of folk-rock classics like Fairport Convention’s “Who Knows Where the Times Goes?”: “Artists choose new wives and paint out the last one’s eyesâ€¦Teachers give up desires and make way for newer lives.” Starting with the dark, oaky piano chords of “Memory Let Down,” however, the album begins to take more risks. “Evening Star” recalls the bustling breakbeat folk of the Chemical Brothers’ hook-ups with Beth Orton and “End of the Pier” is chillingly stark, whipped forward by the kind of ominous death-knell beat you might find on the last Portishead record. Her voice remains beautifully versatile, by turns breathy and haunted, chatty and sardonic. The guest MC on Bebop might be a gamble too far — the kind of thing forward-thinking musicians used to feel obliged to try circa 1993 — but everywhere else The Pond feels exhilaratingly fresh and confident.