Sunday, September 30, 2012

Indistinct Dar: In The Time Of Gods Is Annoyingly Forgettable Dar Williams.

The Good: Decent lyrics, Clear vocals
The Bad: Short, Songs blend together, Musically derivative.
The Basics: In The Time Of Gods is Dar Williams’ latest album and a surprisingly unmemorable outing from the smart, political, writer-musician.

There are few artists I truly get excited about. When I discovered that Dar Williams had a new album out that I had not heard of in advance, I got excited and picked it right up. I’ve been listening to it for the past month and it has taken me that long to muster up the effort to write about it. In The Time Of Gods is the least distinct, least interesting – thematically and aurally – Dar Williams album to date.

At this point in my reviewing, it behooves me to mention that many of the albums that I have labeled “indistinct” are not bad, per se. Instead, they are just utterly unmemorable. When, for example, I listen to In The Time Of Gods, it is not an unpleasant experience. There are even songs I enjoy and have lyrics that I think are smart as they play. But, when the album is not on, it is virtually impossible for me to recall anything that is on In The Time Of Gods. It is derivative, auditory mush, but it is good in the abstract. Ultimately, the lack anything that is truly interesting, audacious, or lyrically memorable, makes In The Time Of Gods a tough c.d. to recommend, though it is not unpleasant to have on.

With only ten tracks, clocking out at 33:20, In The Time Of Gods is very the work of Dar Williams. Williams wrote all of the songs on the album and she provides all of the lead vocals. In addition, she plays acoustic guitar on nine of the ten tracks. While she is not credited as a producer in any way on In The Time Of Gods, she is at a place in her career, on a label that supports her, that it is ridiculous to think she would release something that was not what she intended for it to be.

Vocally, Dar Williams is as good as ever. She performs with decent range, from alto to soprano and what makes her vocal performances distinctive is how clearly she sings each and every line. Williams is an artist who has something to say and she makes certain the listener may hear her. That works out nicely. In the whole realm of being indistinct, though, she presents her songs the same way. There are no long notes held, there are no extreme scales. Instead, Dar Williams sings at a sensible pace on every song, clearly enunciating every note and every word, song after song, without real variation.

Instrumentally, In The Time Of Gods is similarly monotonous or derivative. One of the more creative – for Dar Williams – tracks is “The Light And The Sea,” but that song opens sounding remarkably like “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees. Similarly, late in the album, Williams’s guitar openings sound virtually identical to the openings to many of her other, prior songs. The result is that In The Time Of Gods sounds familiar and lacking in real originality throughout.

In a similar vein, In The Time Of Gods is an unfortunately repetitive album lyrically. Opening with “I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything,” it seems initially like Dar Williams is off to a good start as a musical storyteller. When she sings “Oh, what have we here, he must be three or four / Checking out of the booth on his way back to war / And he’s not looking for a father or a mother / Just a seven year old brother / On this match line border camp of refugees . . . So where are we now, he must be five or six / Just running around, hungry kids, sharpen sticks / And he will grow with pain, and fear, and jealousy / Taking in by school of zealotry / Who trained orphans to make orphans evermore” (“I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything”), she seems to be providing a poignant, politically-relevant song about the fate of youth in Africa or other places where child soldiers are utilized. But, she dilutes the smart, well-written narrative lines with painfully monotonous repetitions of the title. “I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything” comes up ten times, with several near uses of that line.

Conversely, she writes magic on “Crystal Creek.” That story, of civil rights and rebellion, is well-presented with lines like “The one who spied me out as God still plunder / Had to show the world that he was not a true hunter / And it was me when he saw me naked / He was interrupting something sacred / I was guarding Crystal Creek” (“Crystal Creek”). It is a rare thing that one can write a decent historical song, but Dar Williams does it.

But, largely, In The Time Of Gods is poetic without distinction. “Storm King,” which closes the album, is simplistic, but not horrible. Even though “The storm king has seen us from above / Rising up on the starboard bow / He knows the turning of the years / I am the storm king now” (“Storm King”) is better than most writing compared to songs on the radio today, it is less wonderful relative to other Dar Williams songs.

Ultimately, In The Time Of Gods leaves me without the ability to pick a best or worst track. The short album is the least distinctive of Dar Williams’s works and quite possibly the only one not worth picking up.

For other works by Dar Williams, please check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room
Mortal City
Cry Cry Cry (as a member of Cry Cry Cry)
The Green World
The Beauty Of The Rain
Out There Live
My Better Self
Live At Bearsville Theater
Promised Land
Many Great Companions


For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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