Tuesday, November 7, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1070: Dar Williams

This is my second consecutive review of an album released in 2000. The last one was a vitriol-fueled rap record from Eminem. This one is an uplifting folk record from Dar Williams. It takes all kinds to make the music world turn, my friends.

Disc 1070 is…The Green World
Artist: Dar Williams

Year of Release: 2000

What’s up with the Cover? Folk album covers from this era are often some sort of bad photograph, but Dar Williams does this trend one worse, by making a cover festooned with a multitude of bad photographs.

How I Came To Know It: Last year I decided to dive deep into Dar Williams’ back catalogue. The results were mostly positive. Of the ten studio albums I checked out, I liked seven, and added six to the collection (I still haven’t found 2015’s “Emerald” which I suspect is plagued by the relatively short print runs CDs get in recent years).

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Dar Williams albums at present. Now you’re thinking, “I thought he said he found six already…?” which is true, but “End of the Summer” was not shelf-worthy and after a carefully considered three listens, I’m down to five. Of those five, I rank “The Green Room” second, behind only “Mortal City”.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Maybe it was the recent taste of Eminem in my mouth, but “The Green World” just seemed so damned uplifting. It’s proof that there are lots of ways to look at tragedy, and Dar Williams’ way is to take bad news as an opportunity to examine and broaden your perspective.

She does this primarily through the subtle exploration of character. These songs don’t immediately jump out at you, either melodically or lyrically, but when they finally get through it is worth the wait.

The album opens with “Playing to the Firmament” a song which made me think of that happy hippy who lived on your street when you were growing up. You know the one – that person who had a tough life but nevertheless managed a kind word for everyone. They’d even smile at miserable old lady who would slam her front door in protest if the kids in the street were played too loud for her liking. Yes, there were such ladies on my street; just the one door slammer, but lots of unsung heroes playing to the firmament.

Playing to the Firmament” is a song about looking above the pettiness of our daily lives, seeing the broad blue sky with fresh eyes and celebrating that the human spirit can always rise above. Dar plays it bright and playful, setting the tone for a record that will have its share of tragedy but at its core is optimistic for the future.

That optimism is put to the test on “After All” the record’s saddest song, and also its best. A song about lost love, depression and self-loathing, with such heartfelt lines as:

“And it felt like a winter machine that you go through and then
You catch your breath and winter starts again
And everyone else is spring bound.

“And when I chose to live there was no joy, it’s just a line I crossed
It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost
So I was not lost or found.”

Poignant and I also like the cadence and finality created by Dar’s clever use of line length and rhyme scheme. This song could get dark, but instead Dar’s character explores backward through her family, finding a connection in all the experiences that came before her, and how her own experiences also have a place in the world that matter. Or as Dar sums it up:

“’Cause when you live in a world well it gets into who you thought you’d be
And now I laugh at how the world changed me
I think that life chose me after all.”

This song reminded me a lot of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s series of poems on grief called “In Memoriam” and how it slowly explores the stages of grief and how we can come through the darkest times. If you haven’t read “In Memoriam” (the whole thing, monkey - not the three excerpts they anthologize in Norton’s) then I strongly recommend it. It’ll be two of the most beautiful hours you will ever spend reading. But I digress…

Back to Dar, who explores putting aside desire – Buddhist style – in “What Do You Love More Than Love” and on “Calling the Moon” lets you see the world through the perspective of the moon (who seems very nice, by the way). She even does a fun twist on a bit of pop culture with “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono”, suggesting it was John holding Yoko back. I generally can’t stand Yoko’s art, but the twist makes for a fun song.

This record isn’t perfect. There are times when Dar can sound a bit trite, and her vocals when she goes into her head voice can feel a bit thin, but that is her style and these aren’t easy or obvious melodies she’s singing. Also, I found the production a bit lush and pop-like, which tended to make it harder to hear the intricate character studies Dar is revealing.

Overall, however, this record gave me a nice sense that things tend to work out if you let them and after reviewing a couple of Dar’s weaker albums, a good reminder of her skills as a singer-songwriter.

Best tracks: Playing to the Firmament, After All, It Happens Every Day, Another Mystery 

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