Thursday, September 9, 2010

"The Honesty Room" Begs The Question "How Is It Dar Williams Isn't Huge?!"

The Good: Diverse songs, excellent lyrics, an amazing voice!
The Bad: Musically similar songs, Short
The Basics: The Honesty Room is a clever, enduringly wonderful album that established Dar Williams as a folk-rock singer.

Every now and then, I listen to a c.d. and have to think, "How is it when people heard this album, this artist didn't make it huge?" One easy example of that is Dar Williams's The Honesty Room. The Honesty Room was the debut album of Dar Williams and it stands out for me as one of the most distinctive, positive and well-developed debut albums of all time, especially coming from a new singer-songwriter. The Honesty Room is a nonthreatening entry into contemporary folk-rock music and remains one of the best debut albums in any genre.

With Dar as a guide, the listener goes on a pleasant journey indeed. Thematically, Dar is diverse with humor ("Alleluia"), horror ("The Great Unknown" which is easily the most psychologically disturbing song . . . ever), and love (well, a lot of the rest of the tracks!). What ties the album together is the storytelling voice of Dar and the consistent depth of emotion she evokes. Dar Williams falls into the folk-rock category on her debut, with a leaning more definitively toward the folk end of the spectrum. For those who have not had experience with folk-rock music before, it is distinguished by a storytelling song style, so some songs, like "Mark Rothko Song" tell a story set to music. In the case of "Mark Rothko Song," Dar Williams sings a song about the artwork of Mark Rothko, the effect of his art and his suicide and its effects on the art community. Certainly that's not a subject that is prevalent on the average Top 40 track!

In general, folk-rock music has a less "produced" sound than most mainstream pop-rock artists. Folk-rock artists usually master an instrument - often the piano or guitar. Dar Williams plays acoustic guitar and on all thirteen tracks of The Honesty Room, she plays her guitar and sings. The guitar style of the average folk-rock musician is quieter guitarwork to accompany more mellow vocals or a lot of fast strumming (with limited notes) to accompany louder, more ballsy folk-rock tunes. On The Honesty Room, Dar's acoustic guitar goes the length of that spectrum from the somber, quiet guitars on "You're Aging Well," to the blistering strumming of "Flinty Kind of Woman."

What makes Dar Williams's folk-rock experience unique is her lyrics. All thirteen songs on The Honesty Room were written by Dar Williams. As well, she co-produced all of the songs. In short, she is a genuine artist who writes her own lyrics, music and designs the "sound" of the album to be her unique vision. And the true uniqueness of that vision comes in her extraordinary lyrics.

Dar Williams is a poet of the highest order and her lyrics on this album have a strength of diction and vocabulary that is well-beyond the average musical artist (which is ironic, considering so many of the performers today have material written by others, presumably professional writers!). So, for example, Williams opens the album with her classic song "When I Was A Boy," the story of a tomboy. She sings melodically, "I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike / Riding topless, yeah I never cared who saw. / My neighbor came outside to say, 'Get a shirt,' I said, 'No way / It's the last time I'm not breaking any law.'" Her songs truly are little stories.

The stories Dar Williams sings range from singing about being a tomboy ("When I Was A Boy") to dying ("Alleluia" is a story about the bad girls of the afterdeath) to nuclear proliferation ("The Great Unknown"). I mentioned before that "The Great Unknown" is the most terrifying song I've ever heard and I stand by that. Whenever Dar Williams cries out, ". . . And I wanted to sell out, I wanted to try / But you know that the sky got too low, and the ocean got too high, / And I had to take God into my own hands / Am I too late, is it over, / Have I sacrificed my family to the Great Unknown?" I still get chills up and down my spine. The first time I hear her bleak conclusion to that song, ". . . I'm running / Cause I'm trying to put the atom back together . . . " it was so powerful lyrically and musically that I cried. Then, I replayed the song. That's the power of a great artist.

The downside of this album (other than making you want to buy her further works) is the sound. I'm not talking the folk label attached to Dar's work, which is easy to reconcile when you listen to the album because it's so much more than just folk, I'm saying several of the songs sound alike. "You're Aging Well" and "The Great Unknown" for example sound as if the music was written in the same session.

The difficult thing about evaluating this album is the weak link. On this album, Dar does so much that is right that it's difficult to sit back and say "Nope, here she failed!" The exception, then, would have to be "Flinty Kind of Woman," which is out of place on the album. It's almost as if someone said to Dar, "You need a country square dance tune on here to be a real folk artist" and that's what she came up with. It's hard to call "Flinty Kind of Woman" a failure or a weak link, though, because it's a fast-sung song that is packed with words. That is to say, it's not an easy song to sing, but Dar sings it and does it well! And it's a funny song. But it comes a bit out of the blue, stylistically, near the end of the album.

The storytelling nature of the album is brilliant and well executed and probably what prevents the album from being picked up by anyone other than 18 - 29 year old women, but it deserves a larger audience. The album is wonderful and The Honesty Room's candor is the solution to a lot of the banality of . . . well, any musical genre.

The best track is "You're Aging Well" and the weak link is "Flinty Kind of Woman." Consistently excellent album!

For other works by Dar Williams, please check out my reviews of:
Mortal City
The Green World
Out There Live
Many Great Companions


For easy access to all of my music reviews, please check out my Music Review index page!

© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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