Monday, December 5, 2011

Cover Dar: Cry Cry Cry Is Dar Williams Plus And It's All Right!

The Good: Decent mix of songs, well presented. Interesting concept, Lyrics, Some decent renditions.
The Bad: Could always use more Dar. . .
The Basics: I find myself taking a much more lukewarm stand on Cry Cry Cry than other reviewers as Dar Williams teams up with others for a folk cover album.

I suppose one of the ironies of finishing off my little R.E.M. kick and then moving on to a "new" artist is that the first one I chose to review post-R.E.M. is an artist/group that opens their album with an R.E.M. cover song! As a fan of Dar Williams, I was pretty much obligated to pick up a copy of Cry Cry Cry, the eponymous c.d. by the one-disc group that called itself Cry Cry Cry. The reason for this, for those who are not fans of Dar Williams, is that Dar Williams is ostensibly the big draw for the trio of Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell. Given that Dar Williams is the only one of the three I had heard of before picking up the disc, she certainly was the draw for me.

Cry Cry Cry is a folk-rock album presented by the band which is made up of the folk-rockers and it is a very standard folk-rock album with songs that tell musical stories. Rather baffling to me, as a fan of Dar Williams - who has a pretty amazing repertoire -, is that none of the songs on the album are written by Dar Williams (Richard Shindell wrote the final track on the album). As a result, it is not exactly a necessary album for Dar Williams fans.

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 49:55, Cry Cry Cry is a collection of cover songs that were all previously recorded by other artists on other albums from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s. Given that the only one I knew ahead of time was "Fall On Me," it is unclear how many are folk-rock reinterpretations of rock and roll songs and how many are pretty pure covers of the originals. Yes, the most famous artist covered is R.E.M., so after the first track there is a good chance it will be new to you, as well.

All of the songs are arranged by Cry Cry Cry and while the trio provides primary and harmony vocals, they provide only minimal instrumentals. Richard plays guitar on three tracks and Dar plays none, which is strange because she is a very able guitarist (I've seen it with my own eyes!). As far as the vocals go, the duties of primary vocals are spread pretty evenly among the trio, with Dar taking lead on four songs, Lucy getting primary on three, Dar and Lucy harmonizing as the main vocals on two tracks and Richard picking up the other four. All are quite up to the task.

Because I have often complained in my reviews of Dar Williams' albums that she doesn't need male accompaniment, it is worthwhile to have me note that Williams, Kaplansky and Shindell harmonize exceptionally well. On songs like "Shades Of Gray," Shindell's voice adds an air of realism and reasonable narration for the storytelling that sells the song. He sings the song of joining a little band of delinquents and his male voice makes the song work (somehow women stealing cows and running from the law just seems ridiculous to me, whereas a man doing it just makes me roll my eyes at the plausible stupidity of such a scheme). Moreover, when he provides supporting vocals with Lucy on tracks like "Fall On Me" and backs up Lucy alone on "Speaking With The Angel," it works and the sound is smooth, mellow and intriguing.

On her own, Lucy Kaplansky does not impress me that much on Cry Cry Cry. Does she have a good voice? For sure. Her range on "Speaking With The Angel" is impressive and she goes with an apparent effortless quality from the alto into the soprano range. She harmonizes beautifully with Dar williams on "The Kid;" their voices gel amazingly well, making it impossible to judge individual vocal performances on that track. And On "By Way Of Sorrow," Kaplansky illustrates that she can articulate at an up-tempo pace and she is good.

Ironically, it is Dar Williams who might give the least regular vocal performance on Cry Cry Cry. Williams is clear and precise on "Fall On Me," achieving what R.E.M. never did with that song; a clear vocal performance (yea!). Under Williams' arrangement and vocals, the song can be clearly understood and it works surprisingly well as a light folk-rock track. But on "Lord I Have Made You A Place In My Heart," I was ready to criticize how twangy Kaplansky was until I discovered to my dismay that the lead vocals I was not enjoying were actually Dar Williams'. In fact, outside of harmonizing with Kaplansky - which she does equally well on the hauntingly stark "I Know What Kind Of Love This Is" - the only other Dar Williams-driven track that illustrates any ability on her part is the final track of the album, "The Ballad Of Mary Magdalen." And in truth, Williams makes that song her own.

"The Ballad Of Mary Magdalen" was written by Richard Shindell and after hearing the Cry Cry Cry version of it, I have no desire to hear him sing it. Despite my great flexibility over gender issues and gender identification issues, when Dar Williams sings lines like, "My name is Mary Magdalen, I come from Palestine / Please excuse these rags I'm in, I've fallen on hard times / Long ago I had my work when I was in my prime / But [I] gave it up, and all for love / It was his career or mine / Jesus loved me, this I know, but why on earth did I ever let him go" ("The Ballad Of Mary Magdalen") she makes them resonate and she has a voice so close to the divine that we might believe it is actually Mary singing it. Just like the Melissa Etheridge cover of "Refugee" (on her Greatest Hits album) infuses added meaning to the well-known lines simply by virtue of the singer being a woman, Williams singing with the voice and perspective of Mary Magdalen makes it resonate with a truth that is greater than what one might expect were a man doing it.

In general, Cry Cry Cry chose a good mix of well-written songs to showcase their vocal talents with. The songs range from the purely emotive ("By Way Of Sorrow") to the pretty classic folk concept of the story set to music with songs like "Cold Missouri Waters" and "Memphis." Interestingly, Shindell seems to take the most direct musical stories. Perhaps the most complex and original of these is the second track, "Cold Missouri Waters." "Cold Missouri Waters" tells the story of firefighters who get trapped in a blaze and it's a decent story-song with lines like, ". . . I'd seen bigger / So I ordered them to side hill, we'd fight it from below / We'd have our backs to the river, / We'd have it licked by morning, even if we took is slow / But the fire crowned, jumped the valley just ahead . . . Too big to fight it, we'd have to fight the slope instead . . ." And it's a rare thing when a song can tell a story that is so different, make it musical and make it so intriguing as to be worth coming back to time and again, but Shindell sings James Keelaghan's lines in a way that does all of that. It's one of many well-written songs on Cry Cry Cry.

Perhaps the exception to this is "Down By The Water." The song has a honky tonk Country sound to it and the lyrics utilize disappointingly predictable rhymes. So when Kaplansky sings "Down by the water where the big dam is standing / I met Corrinna last night / And while the pale moon was sinking, we lay there drinking . . . Down by the water, I thought I knew / Down by the water, quick as the dew . . ." ("Down By The Water") the track takes on a more singsong quality than anything substantive and meaningful. In other words, the musical story is simple and the language makes it overly simple to the point that it just seems like silly little ditty. This is unfortunate, especially when stacked up against the beautiful poetics of songs like "I Know What Kind Of Love This Is."

Instrumentally, Cry Cry Cry is a very simple album with minimal percussion. The primary instrument on every track is a guitar, be it plain or acoustic. There is bass on a few tracks, and one mixes it up with cellos, but for the most part, this is a very simple guitar-driven album. It evokes the concept of quiet coffee houses and that aura of singing and performing. That is fine, but there are moments that one suspect some of the songs could be a bit more. The only one that actually breaks out to its full potential in terms of sound is "The Ballad Of Mary Magdalen." "Fall On Me" resonates vocally, but in their effort to make it lyrically comprehensible with their amazing vocals, Cry Cry Cry underplays the instrumentals.

Ultimately, this is a good, but not great album. Dar Williams fans will want to give it a few spins and I recommend it for the diversity, but truth be told, I'm probably not keeping mine in my permanent collection. The album is too erratic for my tastes and given that there are tracks that Dar performs the primary vocals for that didn't grab me all that much, I figure it's a good one to rip the three or four tracks I loved from before passing it on to someone who will appreciate it more. But for those who like pure folk and a decent range of songs in that genre, there is probably enough here to satisfy listeners.

The best track is "The Ballad Of Mary Magdalen," the low point is the twangy "Lord I Have Made You A Place In My Heart."

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
Promised Land
Many Great Companions


For other music reviews, please check out my index page with an organized listing of all the music I have reviewed!

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