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Make Way For Love (Caroline)

It’s not the ‘50s or the ‘60s, nor pre-rock or post-rock. It’s not the Beatles or Sinatra, Elvis or Dylan. It may be though a sweet spot in between and Marlon Williams lives there now.

In recent years Nick Lowe, one-time pub rock leading light, witty writer of deceptively throwaway pop gems and producer-of-note for the best of the British new wave (when he became known as Basher for his get-it-down-get-it-fresh approach) has refashioned a career tapping into an oft neglected corner of pop music.

That corner hosts dramatic, orchestrated pop, and sometimes high, verging-on-vulnerable singing; country music’s slower, late evening edge, and a touch of the instrumental bands who bridged surf-and-turf; an appreciation for the “adult” smoothness of, say Nat King Cole, with a fondness for something spookier and odder too; and then a weakness for vocal harmony groups.

Two generations younger than Lowe, a technically better singer, and starting from country/roots rather than rock or pop, Williams nonetheless shares both Basher’s interest in music he grew up hearing at home and his ability to make it feel attractively timeless.

The slow crooner’s delight of I Know A Jeweller rubs velvet against your cheek like Chris Isaak, while hinting at the ability to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, like Bonnie “Prince” Billy. And Beautiful Dress - with its lost-in the wilderness guitar early on paired with rudimentary piano - is the gentle lilt of the Ink Spots holding your hair back as you feel a wave of nausea unsettling the night.

Then there’s the Roy Orbison slow torch applied to an airy moment that could be the check-suited Chimes making creamy 1950s cheese (the title track) and the way the mournful I Didn’t Make A Plan offers itself as the soundtrack to a revisionist western scored by The National.

But these are topped by the crushed hopes of Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore where Aldous Harding (fellow NZ artist, owner of one of last year’s best albums, and the former girlfriend about whom several of these songs are written) duets/reinforces the sense of doomed lovers going to meet their maker with an air of acceptance. It’s a song of high drama in an understated delivery which simultaneously presages the end nobody wants and caresses you as you lie down in its aftermath.

Not that Make Way For Love is simply a bunch of ballads sung ala a not yet terminally depressed Big O (though he’s here in a big way). In a track such as Party Boy it veers into a tense, dark surf song imagined by producer Joe “Telstar” Meek, while What’s Chasing You is nimble and boyish and touches both Motown’s Detroit and the Searchers’ Liverpool.

However, those songs aside, Williams’ ear and eye is for hard questions about soft bruises. Questions such as: who would love him?; can he love again?; what does the one you love do next when you’ve been jettisoned; and, of course, why would anyone love at all?

These are hardly new questions, yes. And Williams is only asking, not offering answers. But like the music here, just because it’s been asked or done before doesn’t mean it can’t move you anew each time. And Williams has found a way to do that.

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