by Chris Familton
In a strong year for New Zealand americana music comes yet another release to boost the profile of a genre that has mostly lurked on the musical fringes. Delaney Davidson has been on the scene for a number of years touting his folk, blues and country music through endless tours and living very much the transient musician life. Now he has teamed up with a relative newcomer in Marlon Williams, best known as frontman in The Unfaithful Ways. The duo are unlikely bedfellows in song with the fresh-faced Williams versus the grizzled 40 year old Davidson but it is the differences between the two songwriters that make the collaboration work so effectively on Sad But True.
The long title of the album is a giveaway to its concept with the pair delving deep into country music history and coming up with a grab bag of sub genres and diversions down a bunch of different dusty roads. They open with a nod to the root of all country music – appalachian music – with plucked banjo and a firm focus on harmonies and in particular the mellifluous keening tone of Williams. He possesses a wonderfully sweet and smooth singing voice that has just the right amount of grain and twang, thankfully avoiding any descent into choirboy territory. Davidson first appears on the 70s Nashville sounding Still Her Heart, his deep gravelly voice a veritable anchor to the song in the style of Johnny Cash and across the record he provides an essential and complementary balance to Williams.
With this kind of project there is always the risk of falling into the trap of pastiche akin to a western period drama and though there are shades of that at times for the most part the duo have done well to avoid such pitfalls. The album’s single Bloodletter is the least country moment on the album, instead it veers into gothic folk-noir territory similar to some of Nick Cave’s ballad explorations. It show they are well schooled in creating mood and tension in their songs and Bloodletter is a gorgeous blood-red swoon of a song. Folk and blues are also prevalent on Demon Claws where the ghost of Townes Van Zandt hangs omnipresent over the droning guitar shapes and Davidson’s vocal stylings.
Though the songwriting on Sad But True is superb and the musical backdrops are perfectly suited both in style and execution, the overarching victory of the record is the human voice. Listen to Heaven For You or the high notes in Please Don’t Let Me Love You and you’ll be won over by the worn and forlorn sound of Williams’ voice soaring high through the melodies. He is a real revelation if you haven’t already heard his work in The Unfaithful Ways.
Davidson and Williams depart the saloon with Trail Of Broken Hearts, a classic story of heartbreak sung a million times in country music bars and complete with whistling and barking dogs and though you sense the duo have wry smiles as they sing the song there is also no question they are firm believers in the art and soul of country music. Sad But True is really a tribute and a love letter to the genre of country music and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that.