Kathryn Williams, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

Surrounded by musicians who were more friends than backing band, Kathryn Williams spent as much time looking at them as the audience. This was despite drawing an attentive audience after three packed dates at a smaller London venue in May.

Surrounded by musicians who were more friends than backing band, Kathryn Williams spent as much time looking at them as the audience. This was despite drawing an attentive audience after three packed dates at a smaller London venue in May.

In a diffident performance, only once did Williams take full command. "This song's called 'Mirrorball'. I think there's one up there, but there's no light on it," she said disappointedly. As Williams strummed her first chord, the lights swivelled up, turning the room that had been bathed in a dull blue and red glow into a celebratory disco.

If only the lights would shine as brightly on Williams' glittering talent. It was this time four years ago that an overawed singer/songwriter from Liverpool was shocked to find her self-funded album nominated for the Mercury Prize after she stumped up the money to enter. Williams stood out on the shortlist just as the veteran Robert Wyatt does this year, with a similar self-deprecating line in humour.

Little has changed, with Williams still an outsider looking in at the massive success of Katie Melua, whose vapid cooing hardly stands up beside Williams' intimate dissections of relationships. So disheartened has she been that Williams preferred this year to release a covers album, Relations, rather than her own material. It is a move to make when you have run out of ideas. But Williams should avoid trading her voice for dusky looks and a pout, for it was a wonderfully controlled instrument. She sang in a whisper, only occasionally raising it to a quiet roar.

Relations was far too respectful a treatment of other people's songs, but on stage Williams revitalised them. While the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" was written about a transvestite, she turned the line "I've come to hate my body" into a wry look at female self-loathing. Better yet were tracks from Williams' last set of self-penned numbers, Old Low Light. She could still add a palpable air of menace to Wolf's tale of an abusive relationship.

Earlier this year, Williams toured with two musicians. Now she returned with her full four-piece band. This made little difference to the sparse backing, with only the occasional distinctive arrangement drawing attention to Laura Reid's mournful cello or Jonny Bridgewood's taut, insistent double bass. Some percussion leant towards the playgroup school of musicianship, though such light relief was welcome when Williams herself joined in, showing the instinctive bonds between musicians that have played together now over three albums.

Williams has grown in confidence, leaving her guitar to concentrate on singing, and two new numbers gave further cause for optimism. After the rich imagery of "Old Low Light", "Hollow" showed a refreshingly more blunt approach aided by its stark arrangement. Before that came the startling sensuality of "Sustain Pedal", something hitherto unheard apart from in Williams' version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". On this evidence, her future could still be bright.

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