Amanda Jo Williams

Yes I Will Mr. Man

(Stereotype; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 23 July 2006

Arm-chair scientists--hell, probably real scientists, too--always proclaim that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, and fine, that's probably true. But I think sound--or at least the sound of a pleasantly grating voice--comes a close second. There's no science to that declaration beyond the oxymoronic modifiers, but I can remember those voices in my life that were so weird and yet somehow more clear or descriptive and those are moments that I can return to just by letting their reflective larynx nails and barbs scrape down the chalkboard of my memory. Lame reveal: Williams' is one of those voices. Which doesn't mean much, given that the history of rock and roll has been one, at least in part, of getting over the novelty of annoying vocal chords. Over fifty years ago, Dylan's popularity made arguments about the power or grotesqueness of a particular voice a fucking crime against intelligent thought, because who cares? Music is a form of expression; expression is free to everybody, bad voices and all, and 3AM cigarettes inhaled between pretentious declarations of "his voice is so fragile and off-key and that's what makes it so powerful" won't convince me that it's the voice itself that gets that honor. If we can accept Miles Davis warbling through a wah pedal or John Cale's violin or the sonic trickery of Wolf Parade or Deerhoof or all the interesting music beyond those borders then why should I tell you that Amanda Jo Williams' voice isn't good in any traditional sense? I mean, it's not that it doesn't matter, but it doesn't matter, right? Two things, sort of. One: if you don't think you'd like sweeping country pageants fronted by a voice that sounds like the thick rubber of an eighteen-wheeler's tire being punctured by a rock, this album isn't for you. You won't even get past her first inhalation. Two: except, the other side of the "voice question" is when singers get pegged precisely because of what their voices sound like. I like Dylan; I like Antony because of the consistently epic delivery; I like Joanna Newsom because I think I could peel husks off the yellow corn of her skittish oration; I like Scott Walker because you could nest in the misery of his dulcet tones. In all of those cases, however, it's the song craft that allows the artist to connect, and the personality that makes it work. People's voices are what they are, and it's the doing that makes it interesting, because you can't climb larynx nodes like a ladder to some mythical state of "authenticity." Williams may or may not be able to sing; I don't really know because she's performing the hell out of her lyrics, punctuating and rolling phrases like the traditional epistemology of pop vocalism was written in the leftover fluid from Eric Dolphy's spit valve. When she's at full tilt, which is pretty much always (impressive, because Yes I Will Mr. Man was recorded in a day), strutting through her songs and strangling her own larynx, any conjecture about whether all of her nasty, flagrant emotion is either the direct result of or obstructed by her earthy, untrained voice is going to get drowned in the sheer volume of her words. In fact, forget what I said in thing number one--back up, buck up and give Williams a try. I dare you. I think if you do make it past her first inhalation, you may just find yourself as giddy as I am. Because it's not her voice, once you can separate the hurdles in your mind; it's her delivery. The appeal for me is the way she knuckles down into the waft of her backing band, sinking and slinging shots in and out with yelps and whoops, speeding up and slowing down her phrasing, creating epic declarations out of distended single vowels, ignoring apophony and umlauted vowels, breaking those syllables apart, reconstructing monosyllables into multi-syllabic phrases, and repeating single phrases while modifying intonations just to up the ante on the uncertainty she feels with the subjects of her lyrics. Every punctuated cadence miasmas its way into your subconscious; every song is map with lines that intersect her conflicted relationship with the south, her home state of Georgia, politics, her past career in modeling, her spontaneous decision to make music, and her dissatisfaction with things or lovers she loves or wants to love. She switches forms with the ease of a martial master, and while on certain tracks like "Close Encounters" or "I Walked Away" it initially sounds like she may just be pushing the country drawl to its illogical extreme, it becomes clear that this inflection is simply part of her overall approach to diction--another entry in her extensive set of vocal-fight styles. On " Close Encounters," casual lines where she expresses high school sentiment and squelches words like "moon" into the drunk-in-a-flatbed "moo-oo-oon" suddenly descend into zealot-rap so quick it's hard to make out the words. The song changes pace, but half-time, double-time, or lock-step, Williams doesn't skip a beat, snapping her genre elastic through jazz, rock, punk, out, fucking with conventions as she fucks with our perceptions of what country can be. It's simple and also extraordinary: actors eat scenery, but Williams is chomping through the entire history of music. Beyond her performance, there's the overall quality of the music. Most country albums (to my untrained ear, anyway) tend to blend on first listen, but like the best (read: Pieces of the Sky and Grievous Angel), pulling the straw of Yes I Will Mr. Man apart reveals a tangled thicket, and in a large part this has to do with her band. Matthew O'Neill's guitar work is one of the oddest I've heard in country--he flips comfortably back and forth from trad-licks to wild squalls, often mimicking Williams' melodies. Underneath, Andy Martin and Mike Dunn tumble fist over fist to create grooves. Their build on "Country Boys" gives an otherwise relatively weak song a hollow, pulsating groove that lends Williams' snark weight. Indeed, she couldn't vocalize like she does without such competent backing, and the synergy is immediately apparent from the opening of the album when "Yes I Will Mr. Man" flips country with a ska twist and she thistles her perfunct delivery into thick chopped phrasings that implode on final syllables. Her tendency to repeat things thrice (which armchair artists or comedians will tell you is the correct amount of repetitions for anything) is first explored when she ends "how will he fare?" with three different enunciations of a single syllable word, and compounded in the second verse when she does the same thing with "project." The stark delivery is suddenly morphed into a beautiful passage featuring Larry Packer's violin and a background chorus of "da - de - da - day - da - di - da - do" before crunching back into the original riffs. The breakdown in "Just Because the Rains don't Fall in Texas" has Williams howling while the band stalls, arcing through her most striking melody; the chorus has her stretching the "-stand" in "understand" into seven syllables as the band pulses behind her. "Ohio," one of the more immediately gratifying tracks, is all onomatopoeic roundabouts, but Williams tends to evoke just as much through noise as she does through English. "You Don't Even Say" suddenly clears the brambles away for a delicious, mandolin-soaked ballad: "I thought love could outlast / the attention span / of this man." Bass and backup vocals pile melodies onto her stark delivery, making pretty what her desolate voice leaves miserable. In all three cases, Williams' delicate treatment of her subjects (or herself, as I assume "You Don't Even Say" is pretty personal) allows her to hint at more than her lyrics literally convey; there are people here, inhabiting these miserable country delicacies, and rather than old country stereotypes we get three-dimensional renderings of individuals in pain. Which makes it even more surprising when "All the Mountains" trills out of the end of "Country Boys"; after the stark first half, the latter half of the album is revealed to be filled with pleasant, rollicking tunes. The lyrics are still fairly cynical, sure, and "Nobody Can Love You like I Do" features chilling lyrics like "kill kill / green dollar bill," but has them sung in beautiful harmony with Avalon Peacock and O'Neill over the Rolling Stones-do-country fakebook. "I Walked Away" features Packer's prettiest country-violin melody on the album over the least-country track here; over surging accompaniment Williams seems to offload her entire history, resembling the lovely way the Drive-By Truckers deal with the South, neither exalting or ignoring the past, simply presenting lives as they exist. When the album spins to a close with "Hey Hey Hey Hey" Williams and her band wrap every idea from the previous nine songs into a tight Devil/Georgia package, and Williams turns her voice inside-out, ferociously biting through the prettier melodies from earlier in the album to get to the core anger that centers Yes I Will Mr. Man as an object of dissent. You can take what I'm about to say with the appropriate grain of salt, because who am I other than the Glow writer who normally covers the out/experimental/electronica stuff on an indie rock site, but seriously: this is unequivocally the best country album I've heard in years. I get just as much pleasure out of it as I get from Emmy Lou Harris or Gram Parsons or (gasp) Johnny Cash, because Williams has a knack for delivering thickly wound and evocative portrayals of American life filtered through the everyday minutia she recounts. And does so while eschewing any attempts to make her voice sound "country" (or "melodic") in the first place, assuming that this genre is far more expansive than is traditionally accepted. Which means this album is pretty experimental, and once you get that, pretty pretty after all. Cop this. And since I know some people see "country" and wince, we can call this alt-country if that makes us feel more comfortable, or rock-country, or punk-country. Or we can just call it what it is, which is a pretty fucking solid debut.