Monday, November 21, 2011

For All My Love Of Dar Williams, Promised Land Is A Repetitive And Average Album.

The Good: A few very catchy, well-written tunes, Vocals, Theme, Production
The Bad: Terribly repetitive lines, Musically unimaginative, Short
The Basics: A very average Dar Williams album, Promised Land presents new Dar Williams songs that sound much like what she has released before.

Dar Williams is coming to a nearby city this very weekend and I am so tempted to go to her concert in Buffalo, but odds are I simply won't have the money to go. Part of the reason for the lack of funds has to be that I just shelled out real money for a real compact disc, Dar Williams' last original album Promised Land, which I learned was out while checking out the Hot 100 albums list right after it was released (yea Dar!). I knew she was coming out with an album, but I have been so busy with moving and getting my life in order, that I didn't realize the album was coming out until I saw it had made the list.

I had a little advantage coming into Promised Land; I attended a Dar Williams concert in the Spring and she performed three new songs which wound up on the album. And as I delve into evaluating her latest work, it is important to note that Promised Land is good and it is still better than the majority of music that is Out There on the radio. But ultimately, Promised Land is average and it sounds like a natural extension of her prior album, My Better Self, without any real sense of growth since that album.

With only twelve tracks, clocking in at 41:53, Promised Land is a more collaborative album from Dar Williams than many of her others. Of the twelve songs, Williams only wrote seven on her own, which is a bit of a departure for the singer-songwriter. Two of the others are covers - Fountains Of Wayne's "Troubled Times" and Stephen Trask's "Midnight Radio" - and three are co-written. "Book Of Love," which was performed at the concert I attended, was co-written by pianist Lara Meyerrattken, who opened for Williams and had the most amazing contraption to allow her to accompany herself in rounds while on stage. "Book Of Love," "Buzzer," and "The Business Of Things" were all songs I had heard before listening to "Promised Land."

Promised Land has less original writing exclusively by Dar Williams than most (possibly all) of her other albums. As well, there is a pretty significant array of instrumental performances from people other than Williams. For example, Lara Meyerrattken is credited with all of the keyboard credits and Suzanne Vega appears to provide background vocals. Strangely, Dar Williams is not credited with any instrumentals on the album, nor is she given any form of production credit. As a result, one might question just how much of Promised Land was truly her musical vision. This album is produced to a level that has not been present on a Dar Williams album since End Of The Summer, which many people consider her pop-sell-out album.

Dar Williams is a folk-rock artist and on Promised Land, she manages to find a full, rich sound that is much more pop-rock than succumbing to the more obvious conceits of folk rock. This does not mean that she sacrifices her well-developed sense of musical storytelling that she has become quite well-known for. Instead, she takes the musical stories and gives them a more pop-rock spin. Take, for example, her new song "Buzzer." This is easily the most psychologically horrific song Williams has written and performed since "The Great Unknown" or "February" (from her first two albums). Unlike those slow, stark sounding songs, though, Williams infuses "Buzzer" with enough musical chaos to actually show what it is she is singing about.

"Buzzer" is a brilliant song that - because of its themes - could never be a successful pop-rock song, despite the fact that it has a great hook and a frantic quality that young people could easily dance to. Given, however, that the track is all about being a part of an experiment involving punishing test subjects with electroshock. As the song gruesomely describes the protagonist simply going along with the experiment, anyone with a soul and reason will simply become terrified by the direction. Williams, however, turns it on its ear by making a very folk-like social commentary with the song when she continues, "The man said 'Do you know what a fascist is?' / I said, 'Yeah, it's when you do things you're not proud of, / But you're scraping by, taking orders from above.' / I get it now, I'm the face, I'm the cause of war / We don't have to blame white-coated men anymore. / When I knew it was wrong, I played it just like a game, / I pressed the buzzer . . ." ("Buzzer"). The song gives me chills every time I hear it and the musical cacophony that accompanies the lyrics sells the concept far better than the live performance of it did. Moreover, I swear, each time I hear it, I hear her sing "white-hooded men" in that line. When most of us think of music, we do not think of it as a medium for psychological horror, but Dar Williams does and that vantage point makes her works so compelling and creepy in the case of tracks like "Buzzer."

But more than freaking her listeners out with songs about scientific experimentation, Williams continues to sing about relationships, both personal and political. One of the superlative tracks in this regard is "Troubled Times," the cover from Fountains Of Wayne. It always irritates me when one of the best tracks is a cover, but having never heard the Fountains Of Wayne version, it strikes me when Williams sings "Maybe one day soon / It will all come out / How you dream about each other sometimes / With the memory of / How you once gave up / But you made it through the troubled times" ("Troubled Times"). The song gives pretty dim prospects to the couple involved, but it is well written and it reflects the pop-style sensibilities Williams is singing in on Promised Land.

Williams is not absent in the ballads on interpersonal relationships, though. Perhaps one of her best songs - to date - is "The Easy Way," which is very much in Williams's writing style. She sings the musical story with lines like "I knew a guy. I thought he was my first love, / But he had to decided between me and the one before, / And she stacked it all up, like a house of cards, / Said if he didn't come back, he'd find her flattened on the floor. / And though I went and lived in my own Hell / Thought that I could die as well, / I let him go where he thought he had to go" ("The Easy Way"). And it is wrenching, but there is a melancholy triumphant quality to it that makes it work perfectly.

Unfortunately, more than any other Dar Williams album, Promised Land is plagued by repetition. The opening track, "It's Alright" (sic) repeats the title thirty-three times in the course of the short song and it is a troublingly monotonous chant more than anything else. Similarly, "Book Of Love" repeats the title with a melodic monotony that gets old real quick. As well, "You Are Everyone" has a quiet quality that does not adequately fit the seething rage of the lyrics. Here is a song where the protagonist is characterizing the subject as the embodiment of everyone who has done her wrong and it's a little ballad.

Promised Land is easy to listen to and there a few moments of genuine musical surprise. On "The Business Of Things," there is an amazing Flugel horn interlude that is so different from everything else on the album it is heartwrenching and so beautiful. This contrasts well the guitar and piano tracks that characterize much of the rest of the album. The problem musically and vocally is that many of the tracks sound like one another or like other Dar Williams tracks. One of the reasons I probably like "Buzzer" so much is that it sounds a lot like "Beautiful Enemy" from My Better Self. Similarly, " Go To The Woods" bears a similarity in musical and vocal stylings to "Empire" or "Teen For God," perhaps.

Fans of Dar Williams are likely to enjoy the album because it is new songs by Dar Williams! Well, mostly. But those same fans who are able to look objectively at the work will likely be the first to admit that the album does sound remarkably similar to other works presented by Dar Williams in the past. That is not, necessarily, a bad thing, but we do find ourselves wanting and expecting more of this talented singer-songwriter.

It is also worth noting that Dar Williams does a phenomenal job of promoting other artists with Promised Land. The liner notes are filled with pictures of paintings and artwork by artists Williams selected for the album. Every painting is credited and that is pretty tremendous for the artists represented.

The best track is "The Easy Way" ("Buzzer" freaks me out too much to want to credit it as the superlative track) and the low point is "It's Alright" which breaks a long tradition of Williams opening her albums strong.

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


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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