Music Reviews

Charlotte Day Wilson Alpha

(Stone Woman Music) Rating - 8/10

At the end of 2020, it was reported that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine had, in part, been funded by a $1m donation from Dolly Parton. This was further proof, not that it was needed, of Parton’s status of all-round good egg and worldwide treasure. Her contribution to the potential salvation of humankind ranks fairly high on her list of impressive deeds, somewhere alongside her literacy program, The Imagination Library, which has been responsible for providing over 150 million books to children in America and beyond.

These acts completed a kind of redemption act for Dolly Parton who, for years, outside of her devoted fanbase, was viewed as little more than a surgically enhanced novelty act caked in make-up, albeit one who was particularly self-aware and gave fantastic soundbites. Revisionism is rife in popular culture, and now many of the songs Parton wrote are now seen as the classics they always were. The woman wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You in the same day, for goodness’ sake. Your fave could never.

Whitney Houston’s cover of I Will Always Love You, taken from the best-selling soundtrack album in history, The Bodyguard, is the most famous version of a Parton track, but also a textbook example of how to misinterpret a song. The Parton original is full of yearning and sadness, but done with incredible restraint as Dolly plays the other woman who has come to realise she has to step back. In Houston’s hands, however, it becomes a melodramatic stadium ballad arranged purely to showcase the strength in her voice. It’s a technically stunning vocal performance, but it strips out all subtlety and nuance, and replaces them with a sensationalist declaration of undying adoration.

The Bodyguard soundtrack came at the commercial peak of Houston’s career, and also at a time when melismatic female vocalists were all the rage. It’s no surprise Houston saw fit to cover a track and turn it into a tour de force in such a manner. But there’s far more to Parton’s songs than the main chorus line and there’s far more to singing than technical proficiency. Some of the most affecting and powerful performances have nothing to do with volume and complexity.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Toronto singer-songwriter Charlotte Day Wilson. In 2018, Wilson recorded a live version of Dolly Parton’s Here You Come Again, which did everything Houston’s I Will Always Love You cover didn’t. It remained faithful to the source material while finding a little bit extra beneath the surface. The song, the title track from Parton’s 1977 album, focuses on the intoxicating effect that her ex has on her, but it’s combined with jaunty, pop-country production. In Wilson’s hands, that’s stripped away, and she allows it to become the torch song it always hinted it could be. Wilson’s voice – a gorgeous, soulful croon – imparts the combination of hopelessness and lust perfectly, conveying emotion without ever being too showy.

Since the release of her CDW EP in 2016, and its lead single, Work, that’s become Charlotte Day Wilson’s modus operandi. Across a range of singles, EPs and guest appearances, she’s earned a reputation as someone who can add gravitas and emotional heft to a track through her vocals, while always ensuring her performance remains in service to the song. She understands her own strengths perfectly, too, as the songs she’s penned and released are often languid, texturally rich pieces, pitched somewhere between the smouldering and sleek soul of Sade, and the modern alternative R&B of artists like The Internet or Jorja Smith.

Five years after that EP, her long-awaited debut album is here and, if you’ve followed her career thus far, it sounds largely as you’d expect. There are lush soundscapes, backing vocals in abundance that create a spiritual feel to many of the songs, and lyrics about relationships and what it means to be a queer woman in the 21st Century. Of the previously unreleased tracks, I Can Only Whisper, a collaboration with fellow Toronto act BADBADNOTGOOD, stands out, with the band’s light-touch jazz grooves providing small embellishments to Wilson’s tale of missing a significant other. Elsewhere, previous single Mountains uses drone, dissonance, and call and response to create a feeling of longing that’s as unsettling as it is desperate. I’ll Take Care of You, a duet with Syd, manages to sound like a declaration of devotion sung directly into your ear, until a closer listen to the lyrics reveals it as the world’s most soulful booty call.

The most heart-wrenching track of all, though, is Wish It Was Easy. It’s clearly about a break-up, one that Wilson obviously isn’t over (“I love you in the morning and in the afternoon / I love you with your demons; enough to fill a room”) and is also unable shake the feeling that there could be another chance (“We’re still kids just playing house / It’s hard to say if we’ll work out”). As the track approaches its climax, we get Alpha’s bluntest lyric as Wilson’s voice comes as close to losing control as it ever does (“Darling, you hurt me / I cut you out early”) before the almost defeatist denouement of “I wish it was easier to love me, babe.”

Alpha’s eleven tracks give the perfect summary of what Charlotte Day Wilson is about, but it doesn’t mean it’s not without its missteps. Lovesick Utopia is fairly lightweight and doesn’t grab the attention in the way that most of the other tracks do, and while Keep Moving is accompanied by a great video (co-produced by Wilson herself), it comes off as an imitation of a Jessie Ware track. These are minor complaints though, as the long period leading up to this record—not to mention the time afforded for additional audio work due to the coronavirus pandemic—means Wilson has had the space to hone her sound and deliver upon the potential her earlier releases promised.