Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Perfect Song, Imperfect Album, We Can't Have Everything, Huh? Mortal City Endures.

The Good: Excellent Voice, Good Lyrics, More Diverse Music
The Bad: Some Backing Vocals
The Basics: An album that successfully illustrates Dar Williams' extraordinary musical talents and it accessible to all who like music.

Dar Williams might just be the savior of today's pop music. Yes, she's labeled as "folk" but that's just bad p.r. I mean it. Listening to the eleven track album Mortal City, there are perhaps two songs I'd actually consider "folk songs." Being labeled as "folk" is either a rejection of today's pop music or an attempt to woo the college crowd (mostly young women) who want to buy something they think it socially relevant or rebellious. Either way, my first comment on Mortal City and Dar Williams would be that overcoming the word "folk" ought to be something of a priority. That or she ought to just keep rejecting the current Pop-Rock Establishment.

It's the loss of the masses, as Mortal City shows. Dar Williams has so much to offer. Unfortunately, Mortal City is arranged like a pop album from the typical one hit wonder. I don't think Dar is a one hit wonder, fear not, but the album is arranged as if she was. Why? Ninety percent of all one-hit wonders have the first single as the first track to their album. No kidding. It's done for a reason, too. It's the record company banking on people liking that track and it harkens back to the days of tapes. Most people wouldn't truly want the whole tape, so they'd only look for the one song. The record companies made it easy; they'd put it at the front of the tape so you could play and then rewind and play again.

Mortal City, in a similar way, aims high and shoots powerfully with its first track "As Cool As I Am." "As Cool As I Am" is a rousing pro-woman anthem that could have easily been a single on pop-rock stations everywhere. It's that good, it's that listenable. It's that universal. The song is open to interpretation and the classic refrain "I will not be afraid of women" is accessible to men as well. It's a truly great and enduring song.

The thing is, "February," track two, is probably as good, but for completely different reasons. It's a soulful lament about the demise of a relationship over a winter and it's fabulous. There's a whole stream of lines leading up to a heartwrenching non-sequitor "I tried to remember, but I said, 'What's a flower?' / You said, 'I still love you'" ("February") which is perfectly paced and executed. It's easily one of the saddest songs of all time. Dar has a nice way of getting songs in my extreme lists of all time (her "The Great Unknown" from The Honesty Room - click here for that review - remains my top bone-chillingly frightening song of all time).

After the magnitude of the first two songs, it's hard to compete, though Dar gives it a good go of it. Unlike Heather Nova's album Siren where the greatness does begin with the first single and continues at least as strong to make it a perfect album, Mortal City fails to remain as wonderful. That's a near impossibility when you put two incredible tracks up front!  Unlike her album Out There Live (click here for that review!), Mortal City is not all hits and it does not hinge just on Williams' own talents.

The weakness of some of the songs that follow are, mostly, in the backing vocals. Dar Williams is an excellent singer. She's a great artist. She knows her stuff. Frankly, she doesn't need help. Having seen Dar live and having enjoyed her live album, I'd heard "Iowa" (Track 3 on Mortal City) live and Dar-only in at least two incarnations. I was thus somewhat miffed by why she was receiving a male backing vocal in the song. It didn't sound right. Having listened to the album several times now, I think it's not because it's not what I expected, it's that it doesn't sound right. It doesn't sound right for the song. Similarly, the raspy male voice in the sea chantey "The Ocean" seems out of place. While it gives a more diverse sound than The Honesty Room's tracks, it doesn't seem a step forward. This album is more successfully musically diverse than her debut, and that works. But with the backing vocals, the backing vocals do work on "The Christians and the Pagans." It's a somewhat funny song that does the old 70s tactic of have fun while you learn about diversity and the backing vocals add a playful sound to the track.

But the hallmark of Mortal City is the lyrics. Dar Williams is one of the greatest songwriters of our day. She tackles larger human issues in metaphor ("The Ocean"), social commentary ("The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed"), and economics ("Mortal City"). She is a visionary and above all, she's a writer. And a great one at that. What immediately strikes one when reading the liner is that each page is filled with lyrics. The lines to the story "Mortal City" (a seven and a quarter minute track) take up two pages.

Dar will make a perfect album, I know that from experience subsequent to this album. She's that good. Mortal City shows growth in her musical abilities while maintaining a high level of quality for lyrics, but it still doesn't add up to a perfect album. Is it worth listening to? Absolutely! This IS the cure to the poisonous boredom of current pop music and it shall endure beyond those pathetic tunes you can hear anywhere.

The strongest tracks are "As Cool As I Am" and "February", the weakest link is the slow, somewhat sappy "Family" (which, ironically, is the only song on the album Dar did not write).

For other strong female artists, please check out my reviews of:
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy
Laws Of Illusion - Sarah McLachlan


For other music reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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