Instrumental albums pose challenges for reviewers like myself whose natural tendency is to focus on vocals and lyrics. Yet I love to listen to this kind of music, to let it work its mysterious magic on my soul and instead of deconstructing the words to search for the narrative in my own emotional reaction to the sound. Yasmin Williams’s new album ‘Urban Driftwood’ is a masterpiece of acoustic guitar playing, connecting with her instrument on a level that reaches the sublime.
The cover art of this album paints a picture of light behind the darkening clouds, high above the trees that line the earth below. The ‘urban’ in the title suggests we can find this light in our cities too, if we look for what driftwood the world has brought for us, what beauty is all around us that could be reclaimed and reused for art, or for a higher purpose.
And the opening song Sunshowers brings those contrasting ideas of sunshine and rain, into life. There’s optimism in the beginning, a brightness in the textures and landscapes she builds in her playing, with the darker moments overcome in a frenetic forward motion.
I Wonder (For Michael) is a softer, quieter moment of tranquility. On Juvenescence you are reminded of just how beautiful the guitar sounds, simply on its own, with no distraction. Alone in that isolation there is such a sense of joy and melody in exploring the frets and strings of the instrument.
Dragonfly and Through the Woods connect us to nature, reflecting the beauty of the world around us. On the latter song she plays guitar like it’s a keyboard, playfully sliding up and down the neck to find new rhythms and sounds.
Williams began playing after a youth spent on the video game Guitar Hero 2, finding that to translate to real life the way you push rather than strum on the game she needed an acoustic instrument. Rock music influences are still present in her work, with Jimi Hendrix being a huge icon for her, and she has also spoken of her admiration for folk icon Elizabeth Cotton.
On the title song, featuring percussionist Amadou Kouyate, they play together in hypnotic rhythms, harmonious in every sense of the word. Her picking style is as though she is almost trying to get under the surface of the strings, closer and closer until the secret truth of their sound is revealed.
After the Storm finishes the album with a moment of contemplation, where her delicate playing creates a poignant lament for hope and peace.
On Urban Driftwood Williams takes her instrument in unexpected and exciting new directions, so much so she could almost make you believe that a guitar is a living, breathing thing. On this evidence there’s a lot of light, and life, still left in that old six string.
In conversation with Aquarium Drunkard: https://aquariumdrunkard.com/2021/02/10/yasmin-williams-transmissions/