Monday, June 11, 2007

The Iron Stone

The Iron Stone
By Robin Williamson
ECM 1969

Arguably, Robin Williamson is one of those musicians whose influence is far greater than his fame. While Williamson’s highly regarded Incredible String Band had quite a bit of chart success in the UK, their former manager Joe Boyd bemoaned their missed opportunities for international breakout superstardom in his memoir White Bicycles. That seems to have given Williamson the latitude though to chart his own course in recent years, which included sessions of sung poetry that incorporate elements of folk and jazz for ECM. His latest, The Iron Stone, includes the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as his own writings.

Williamson’s voice might not be the richest, but it is steeped in character, transporting listeners to the Scottish Moors or Medieval Wales. Stone starts with an original, “The Climber,” an Icarus-like fable of three brothers climbing “into and through the clouds themselves.” It sets the eerie tone for the session, which includes combinations of Williamson’s harp and percussion, Mat Maneri’s viola, Barre Phillips’ bass, and Ale Möller’s Mandola, accordion, flutes, and assorted traditional instruments.

Williamson still finds inspiration from great poets, as in “Wyatt’s Song of Reproach,” given a sensitive troubadour rendition. As a lament for romance gone by, it serves his voice very well. Wistful elegies to time past are a recurring element, as in Raleigh’s “Even Such Is Time,” another simple, but elegant arrangement.

Of Williamson’s songs, perhaps “Political Lies” has the strongest melodic hook. Like much of Stone though it conveys a naturalistic sensibility, heard in the refrain:

“Political lies, political promises
This shadow everywhere, a sense of powerlessness.”

While Williamson’s words are central to the session, the musicians form a highly compatible unit. Their string trio arrangement of “Loftus Jones” maintains their feeling reflective melancholy uninterrupted.

The Williamson of Stone sounds eons removed from the 1960’s of his ISB days. His “Verses At Ellesmere” could easily pass for a traditional English folk song, as he sings:

“Who can deal an order on God’s ardour?
Who can out-shuffle every shift of the cards?
Among the tangled turns of nettled England.”

Williamson and company open a window into a striking, but stark world of loss and spiritual draught. The delicate music perfectly accompanies his often grim words for a fascinating listening experience.