The Good: Duration, Good songs, Great vocals, Generally wonderful lyrics.
The Bad: Nothing genuinely new, Repetitive tracks.
The Basics: Dar Williams 2010 double-c.d. release of her singles is more an essential work for those who do not have Williams’ other albums than for her fans.
A few days before my recent birthday, my wife discovered that there was a new Dar Williams album coming out and sight unseen (or ear unheard) she bought it for me for my birthday. Between Many Great Companions and Heather Nova’s The Jasmine Flower (click here for that review!) it was a pretty wonderful birthday in the music department! The first surprise my wife and I got with Many Great Companions was that it was a two-disc set. The second surprise was that it was a “best of” or “singles” album, a compilation and while the first disc features remixes of Dar Williams songs, the second disc is a collection of studio releases from her seven prior studio albums.
For a change in formula, I want to start at the bottomline. Many Great Companions is an exhibition of what Dar Williams fans already know: the woman has serious talent as an artist and as a performer. What the album does not do is reward those of us who figured that out a decade or more ago by providing us with anything truly new. As a result, Many Great Companions is an ideal compilation to sway the masses to what the few already know: that Dar Williams is a musical artist worth their time and attention. But for those of us who hoped that when Dar Williams came out with an inevitable “Best Of” album, she would compile all of her rare tracks onto a bonus c.d. (the live version of “O Canada Girls,” the two or three different live tracks from My Better Self which were found on exclusive albums at Barnes & Noble and Borders, etc.), we remain either disappointed or with essentially duplicated albums in our collection. While Williams might not have wanted to disappoint the collectors in her audience, it is unfortunate that if she were releasing alternate versions of her established songs – which is what disc one of Many Great Companions does – that she would not have thrown on the additional b-sides to give value to her fans who were buying it anyway.
That said, Many Great Companions does what it sets out to do quite well by showcasing most of the best of Dar Williams and arguably what is most impressive about the album is how it manages to include recordings from all of the phases of her career, not just her oldest stuff and not just her newest works. Many Great Companions is an exceptionally balanced recording and as such, fans who might not have heard her works since their college days will be delighted to hear what she has been up to and for fans who are about to be stranded on a desert island with only one Dar Williams recording, well, now they have it.
With two discs totaling over two hours of music (50:17 and 78:05 on the two discs), Many Great Companions is largely the work of folk-rock artist Dar Williams. The album has thirty-two tracks, six of which are duplicated over the two discs, and only one of them was not written by Williams (“Better Things”). On her new recordings of her classic songs, Williams plays guitars on each and every track and she provides the primary vocals throughout the entire album. As well, Williams acts as a co-producer on the compilation, so it is hard to argue that the album sounds like anything but what she wanted it to sound like.
What the album generally sounds like is mellow folk music. The first disc of Many Great Companions strips away some of the production elements on songs like “What Do You Hear In These Sounds” and “If I Wrote You” to give her classic tracks a more acoustic feel to it. While this is almost imperceptibly different on songs like her ballad “I’ll Miss You,” the “songs revisited with guitar and a few friends” (disc one) sounds like an intimate live performance without the annoying crowd noises. What this provides the listener is the chance to hear what it is like to hear Williams at a concert when she has limited accompaniment. This is very much the “one woman with a guitar” folk music sound.
The second disc, labeled “The Best Of Dar Williams” illustrates that Williams is not at all stuck in that rut. On that disc, songs like “It’s Alright” and “Teen For God” erupt with energy, production and more instrumentation which shows a growth curve for Williams beyond her humble musical beginnings. Songs like “Empire” are produced with a scope to them which makes their theme more apparent and powerful, which is something necessary for a strong social commentary song. This offers perfect contrast to even her more produced version of “The One Who Knows,” which is an intimate song on either album.
In fact, all one truly finds themselves wishing for – if not truly exclusive tracks – are other tracks which Williams might not have considered her best, but which are her standards. In other words, fans already have so many recordings of “When I Was A Boy” and “The Babysitter’s Here;” we did not need another one of each of those on disc one, considering the familiar versions were on disc two and they were quite adequate. I would have thrilled to hear a redone version of “You’re Aging Well” or even “Mortal City” (or one of my personal favorites, “The Great Unknown,” which I’ve never managed to get Williams to perform live when she asks her audience to scream for a song on the spot).
For those unfamiliar with Dar Williams, Williams is a folk rock singer who has exceptional range from the alto to the soprano registers. On songs like “Book Of Love,” she effectively transverses those registers in a way that transfixes the audience. She is able to sing fast and with great articulation on songs like “Teen For God” and “Empire” and slower and with a real depth of emotion on songs like “The Babysitter’s Here” and “After All.” There is a beautiful intimacy to the works on her first disc as she is accompanied by vocalists like Mary Chapin Carpenter (on “The One Who Knows”), Patty Larkin (“When I Was A Boy”) and Sara and Sean Watkins (“The Christians And The Pagans”). Williams smartly chose accompanying artists who would not overwhelm her vocals and the album is a beautiful display of the vocal talents of Dar Williams.
What is more limited than anything else on the album is the instrumentation. While the second disc shows real variety and range, even for an artist primarily on the guitar or a piano, the first disc is all rerecorded works that move a variety of different songs into a more narrow sound. Even at her concerts, Dar Williams has more energy and musical diversity than the sound of her with her own guitar as presented on the first disc in Many Great Companions. As a result, it is hard not to feel a little cheated by that recording, though the songs are still pleasant to listen to.
What Dar Williams has going for her more than most contemporary musical artists is a great writing ability. Williams writes a lot about relationships (“The Ocean,” “The Easy Way”) and how turbulent they can be as well as the simple joys of love and life (“As Cool As I Am”). Many of her best songs, though, are infused with a melancholy which takes their youthful view and brings a more mature outlook to it. So, for example, her classic storysong “The Babysitter’s Here” climaxes with a turn from the youthful joy of spending time with a favored babysitter to “But it's Saturday night I can't sleep and we're watching the news. / She says, ‘Do me a favor don't go with a guy who would make you choose.’ / And I don't understand and she tries to explain / And all that mascara runs down in her pain / 'Cause she's leaving me, oh” (“the Babysitter’s Here”). Williams creates interesting characters in her musical storysongs and that makes the entire album engaging.
As well, Williams does not shy away from strong social commentary. Despite the change in administration in the United States (though one might not know it from last night’s midterm election results), Williams’ social commentary songs like “Empire” still ring true. While thinly veiled against George W. Bush with lines like “Who's afraid of the son? / Who would question the goodness of the mighty? / We who banish the threat, / When your little ones all go nighty nighty? / Well there's no time for doubt right now, / And less time to explain. / So get back on your horses, / Kiss my ring, / And join our next campaign, / And the Empire grows. . .” (“Empire”), Dar Williams expresses with great musical ability a fear of totalitarian regimes. That is more than admirable, it is incredible.
And Williams has a poignancy for the obscure. Her song “After All” remains a masterwork of lyrics and sound as she sings about the agonizing, suicidal, level of devotion that comes from losing love. When she sings “Well the sun rose / So many colors, it nearly broke my heart / It worked me over like a work of art / And I was part of all that / So go ahead, push your luck / Say what it is you gotta say to me / We will push on into that mystery / And it'll push right back / And there are worse things than that / Cause for every price / And every penance that I could think of / It's better to have fallen in love / Than never to have fallen at all” (“After All”) it is hard not to be stopped with respect for the human struggle and the magnitude of human emotions. Dar Williams phrases it with absolute perfection.
In the end, Many Great Companions is a worthwhile album, but it is hardly the essential album fans like me were hoping for when we heard Williams had a new album out. On the plus side, one suspects Many Great Companions will have its day, rise and fall and Williams will keep on producing music. And perhaps in twenty years, we will get a full anthology of her works which have as much depth as this compilation, without the flaws. Williams is an artist who has that ability and we applaud her when she uses that talent. And for those who have never heard her works, well, now Many Great Companions is here for you to rectify that.
For other works by Dar Williams, please check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room
The Green World
Out There Live
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.