Tuesday, November 25, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 682: Dar Williams

When I finish this blog entry I am going to clean the house. I am saying this hoping publishing it to the world will shame me into following through. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much affected by peer pressure.

I am, however, positively motivated by music, and cleaning the house means I get a couple of really good listens to whatever is new to my collection (not for reviewing purposes, but fun all the same). Tonight it will be Broken Bells’ latest offering, 2013’s “After the Disco.”

What will win? Love of music or love of the couch? If this were a football injury report, I’d put the cleaning down as “questionable.”

Disc 682 is…. My Better Self
Artist: Dar Williams

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover?  I believe this is Dar trying to show that she still has some sense of childlike innocence about her, but all it does for me is make me think about some annoying kid who wants to show me her blue tongue after eating a candy.

How I Came To Know It: Even though Sheila introduced me to Dar Williams, she was never that into her. This was me just buying another album after I liked the one Sheila brought home.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have two Dar Williams albums; this one and “Mortal City” which I reviewed way back at Disc 85. I briefly owned a third (1995’s “the Honesty Room”) but hated it so much I got rid of it long before I started writing this blog.  Of the two I have, “Mortal City” is the better effort, not “My Better Self.”

Rating: 3 stars

“My Better Self” is about ten years too late to fit into the college protest folk fad that was big in the early and mid-nineties. Fortunately while pop music has to fit into fads, folk music doesn’t. As a crossover album between pop and folk, “My Better Self” therefore feels alternatively stale and inspiring – but mostly inspiring.

The music is mostly the typical guitar strum fare, but Williams does work in a lot of other guitar styles throughout. I prefer her at her folkiest, so on songs where the electric guitar gets all top 40 (“Blue Light of the Flame”) or bluesy (“Two Sides of the River”) she loses me a bit. She writes good melodies and sharp, clever lyrics, and the more production she engages the more the instrument that carries both – her voice - gets washed out.

The album’s first song, “Teen For God” hits all the right notes, however. “Teen For God” is a coming of age song, about a girl who despite all her best efforts, just can’t find herself to find religion, or resist temptation. The lyrics trip along nicely as she imagines the young woman will grow into; now knowing she’s not a believer, but unable to help feeling wistful for a simpler time:

“Help me know four years from now
I won’t believe in you anyhow
And I’ll mope around a campus and I’ll feel betrayed,
All those guilty summers I stayed, but
Then I’ll laugh that I fell for the lure
Of the pain of desire to feel so pure
And I’ll bear all the burdens of my little daily crimes
And wish I had a God for such cynical times
Far from today.”

As an atheist anthem I had a soft spot for this one, but it is still preachy in its own way. I forgive it because it is clever, pretty to listen to, and Dar’s lyrics at their core are light-hearted, not judgmental.

Some of the other preachier songs on the album hit the pulpit a bit too hard by comparison, with mixed results. “Echoes” is a ‘pay it forward’ song, about doing good deeds to make the universe a better place. While you could call it preachy and a bit syrupy, I’m a sucker for the idea that even small kindnesses help define our world for the better. I found myself chiding myself for falling for the pop schmaltz of it all, and then chiding myself again for feeling like there’s anything wrong with an anthem about spreading the love.

Beautiful Enemy” and “Empire” are both songs where it feels like Williams is exploring her conflicted feelings about her own country. Both songs come close to excellence, but neither quite pulls it off. I can’t put my finger on why they don’t work. They both feel like when you’re trapped in a corner at a party with someone who initially wants to hear your opinion on some issue of the day, but the more they talk to you the more you realize it isn’t a conversation, it’s an interrogation. Steve Earle’s protest songs draw you in, but these two tend to push me out.

The album features two cover songs, both of which are good. Dar does a folk version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” I like it, but I prefer the original, which is hard to beat. She also does a take on Neil Young’s “Everyone Knows this is Nowhere” which I actually liked better than the original. It has a ringing guitar that provides a nice sharp energy to the also excellent, but more hippy and laid back offering from Neil.

The album ends on a perfect note, just like it started, with “The Hudson,” a love song about the Hudson River. Just Dar singing a pretty little guitar strum with a few punctuated notes and a piano adding emotional ‘oomph’ in the background. “The Hudson” has the album’s best lyrics and the prettiest melody, and it makes you want to just sit on some river-house deck in the autumn and drink a coffee while the river slowly flows by. The song opens with:

“If we’re lucky, we feel our lives,
Know when the next scene arrives,
So often we start from the middle and work our way out,
We go to some gray sky diner for eggs and toast,
The New York Times or the New York Post,
Then we take a ride
Through the valley of the shadow of doubt
But even for us New Yorkers
There’s a time in every day
The river takes our breath away.”

Wherever you live, I hope you have something that from time to time takes your breath away just like this. In my home town I’ve got plenty – Garry Oak meadows come to mind – and it was a joy to be drawn into Dar’s so artfully.

Best tracks (with artists): Teen For God, Echoes, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere,  The Hudson

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