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Dar Williams - Emerald

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 5 / 7 / 2015

Dar Williams - Emerald
Label: Bread and Butter
Format: CD


One of America’s leading singer/songwriters, Dar Williams releases her strongest and most diverse set of songs so far

In 1996, unbelievably almost two decades ago, in a strange town and a country I had only been in for a few months, I found myself in a small, friendly (weren’t they all?) record shop. Not really looking for anything special, just browsing, I came across a double CD by Dar Williams combining two of her albums, ‘The Honesty Room’ and ‘Mortal City’. The name seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe I had read about this American singer/songwriter somewhere and the name had stuck in my mind for some reason. I left that shop with the CD still unsure what I was going to hear when I got home. It was an impulse buy but the song titles were intriguing, and from the inlay I somehow got the impression that maybe Dar Williams was maybe more than just another acoustic guitar strumming female folk singer. While there have been many such artists who have more than impressed me through the years (and still new names come through almost monthly), I doubt if there’s an artist who made such an impression on me as Dar Williams did when I took in both of those albums in one sitting. Williams covered so many subjects on those albums; religion, love lost and won, the tribulations of being a teenager, humour and geography all played a part, and the music Williams presented her stories in, while generally regarded as folk music, was so much more than that. Never has the break-up of a relationship and a new start been so articulately captured as Williams does on ‘February’. She tackles gender issues so eloquently in ‘When I was a Boy’, and injects humour into the pain of teenage romance in ‘The Babysitter’s Here’. Williams was obviously an immensely talented songwriter as those two albums testify. ‘Emerald’ is Williams’ ninth studio album by my reckoning (not including her two earliest albums which were only ever issued on cassette as far as our research shows, and also not taking in the live albums and ‘Cry, Cry Cry’, the excellent set from 1998 with Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell), but if Williams is a new name to you then the compilation ‘Many Great Companions’ is probably the best place to start. It contains the original versions of all of the above mentioned songs along with many others from her various albums and a disc where the singer revisits some of her earlier work, produced by Gary Louris and featuring Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Larkin and Sara and Sean Watkins. While Williams has never been one of those artists whose work can be neatly defined in one genre, ‘Emerald’ can be labeled as her most diverse set of songs yet. In fact when opening track, ‘Something to Get Through’, slowly awakens with producer Josh Kaler’s lap steel setting the scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Aimee Mann had invaded the sessions and taken control. The dream-like quality that occupies the song is unexpected and an eye-opener. It’s certainly a brilliant and inspired way of introducing Williams' latest set of songs. But even that diversion doesn’t prepare the listener for what comes next; ‘FM Radio’ is a co-write with Jill Sobule that just demands to be blasting out of car radios all summer long. The song, produced this time by Brad Wood, can’t help but brighten up the dullest of days with its power-pop vibe and lyrically it will raise more than a smile or two. Dropping in names like Springsteen, Sonny and Cher, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne and Lou Reed only adds to its fun. It’s as far removed from Williams' early sound as is possible, yet it’s carried off with such style and enthusiasm one only wonders why Williams hasn’t explored this side of her music more. By third track, ‘Empty Plane’ we are back in familiar Dar Williams territory. The haunting quality that dominates the song is captivating. Again Williams evokes a dream-like state making the song one her most experimental to date. Lyrically, as usual, Williams pulls the listener into her tale. Her feelings of leaving and loneliness as she walks through the airport are really vivid and chilling. The title track, ‘Emerald’, features Richard Thompson on guitar and again the imagery conjured up in both Williams’ lyrics and the accompanying music is razor sharp. ‘Slippery Slope’ is a duet with Jim Lauderdale, co-written and produced by the couple, the jauntiness of the music betraying the insecurities of a relationship before turning those doubts around. ‘Mad River’, with backing vocals by Milk Carton Kids Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, is another Brad Wood production and, while those backing vocals and the sympathetic production, along with Jonny Polonsky’s subtle electric guitar, add much to the atmosphere of the song. It’s Williams’s lyrics though that stand out here. A bunch of friends enjoying their summer games gives way to the realities of life as debts mount and the hardships of unemployment sink in. Even the chance of a new start isn’t all it seems. It’s a remarkable piece of work and one that shows why Williams is so highly regarded by her contemporaries. Of the two non-originals on ‘Emerald’, Kat Goldman’s ‘Weight of the World’ is the most effective, with backing vocals from Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche, and strings lending to the melancholy feel perfectly. Taking Joe Strummer’s version of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ for the next track and other cover results in an inspired reading. The use of dobro, wurlitzer and hurdy gurdy offers this reading another unexpected sound to what has by now proven to be Williams' most ambitious album to date. The closing ‘New York is a Harbor’ is a co-write with Bryn Roberts whose piano dominates the song, and which recalls Williams' early work on ‘The Honesty Room’ and ‘Mortal City’ more than any other song on this latest collection. It’s a fitting finale to a collection of songs that show the many differing sides to the music of Dar Williams and which cements her growing reputation as one of America’s finest singer-songwriters.

Track Listing:-
1 Something to Get Through
2 FM Radio
3 Empty Plane
4 Emerald
5 Slippery Slope
6 Here Tonight
7 Girl of the World
8 Mad River
9 Weight of the World
10 Johnny Appleseed
11 New York is a Harbor

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