YASMIN WILLIAMS – URBAN DRIFTWOOD
Fingerstyle acoustic guitar
Fingerstyle acoustic guitar has always been a bit of a niche genre. It did have a brief moment of semi-mainstream attention back in 2005 when Candyrat Records uploaded a video of Andy McKee performing his song “Drifting” to YouTube and people on the internet lost their collective minds. For many viewers, it was their introduction to this style of playing (you can do that with a guitar?). “Drifting” going viral also coincided with a bit of a creative high point for the genre. There are songs from that era that still live among the wrinkles of my brain. But, as the hype has died down, so has the quality of the material released, to an extent. Many artists are still releasing new music, but very little of it sticks with me. However, when I listened to this new album from Yasmin Williams, I instantly recognized that it was special.
Pick any track from Urban Driftwood and you’ll soon be made aware of Williams’ ability to use the guitar to say what she wants it to say. She often layers different techniques (and sometimes other instruments) on top of each other to create lush arrangements. The feelings conjured by her playing ranges from thoughtful in the beautiful “I Wonder (Song for Michael)” to youthful joy in “Juvenescence” to seeing beauty in the dizzying anxiety of the city in the title track. Another thing that I find very impressive with Williams’ work is that she is not beholden to a single style or gimmick. She uses whatever technique best suits the song, whether it be fingerpicking while holding the guitar traditionally, two-handed tapping on the fretboard, or laying the guitar on her lap to play. Sometimes she might even do all of these in a single song, like in “Juvenescence.”
Unfortunately, as is the case with some instrumental music, Urban Driftwood has a certain je ne sais quoi that sets it apart from other instrumental guitar music that is very difficult to describe in words. You really have to hear it to recognize it, but I’ll do my best. One of the most influential pioneers of this specific style of playing guitar was Michael Hedges. It’s been recorded that Hedges did not view himself as a guitarist, but rather a composer who used the guitar. I believe it was this attitude that allowed him to make the music that he did. He didn’t tap the fretboard with two hands because it looked cool, he did it because it was what he had to do to get the sounds he wanted out of the guitar. He made the guitar do what he wanted it to do, and I believe that symbiotic relationship comes through in his music. Very few guitarists approach this feel with their compositions, but Yasmin Williams gets closer than anyone I’ve heard in a long time.
On Williams’ own website, it says that she switched to acoustic guitar while she was learning because of its versatility. That alone tells me that there is at least some of that more composer-like approach. Other aspects that I think make her music special are the various different perspectives she brings to the genre. Along with being a woman and a person of color, Williams is young. The same bio on her website says she didn’t start learning guitar until 2009, four years after “Drifting” went viral. She grew up and picked up the guitar in a very different musical landscape than many of the guitarists who benefitted from the aftershocks of that video. Her music won’t be drastically different to people familiar with the genre, but there is a noticeably distinct quality to it, and you have to wonder if some of that comes from her age and background. And honestly, the scene could use a little more diversity. (Seriously, Candyrat’s artist page is 95% male and very nearly 100% white.)
If you can’t tell, Urban Driftwood impressed me in a big way. Yasmin Williams brings some much-needed diversity to and breathes new life into a genre that has felt stagnant in the years since its viral peak. Rather than being limited by the acoustic guitar, she bends it to her will and makes it tell the musical stories that she wants to share with the world. I look forward to what the future holds for her and I hope that this album marks the beginning of a new generation of fingerstyle guitarists. If nothing else, consider the fact that I haven’t published any reviews since last August and no single album reviews since last May. The fact that Urban Driftwood broke my silence should give you a hint that it’s something special.
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