Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Horrors Of Endings, The Rising Of Greatness: Dar Williams' End Of The Summer

The Good: Great sound, Wonderful lyrics, Decent voice, Good mix on album
The Bad: Two weak tracks, Short
The Basics: With exceptional lyrics and a greater range of instruments - bass, more drums, production elements - Dar Williams steps up with an album that pushes the envelope.

When I first discovered Hem (in my life, not like I was a talent scout and "found" them or anything like that!) and reviewed Eveningland (reviewed here!), I was told that I might be placing too much emphasis on musical genre as opposed to simply evaluating the music as I heard it. In short, I was too concerned with whether or not Hem's unique sound, which mixes folk, rock, pop and classic country, was too close to country for my comfort. While I might not belabor that point if I were to write a review now - how many of our reviews would we change after we've had a year or three with a work?! - it was something that was a concern at the time and I wrote it as I felt it. I mention this because reviewers of Dar Williams's third album, End Of The Summer often berate the album for how it is more pop-rock than folk and when I discovered I had not written a review for this work, I decided to champion Dar Williams and End Of The Summer as an argument for the growth of an artist.

With eleven tracks, clocking in at just over forty-three minutes, folk-rock artist Dar Williams explodes the preconceptions of what a folk rock album can be by taking lyrics with the sophistication and storytelling associated with folk music writing and pairing them with pop-rock instrumentations and production levels. The result is either a redefinition and progression of folk-rock or one of the most lyrically-sophisticated pop albums of all time. Either way, End Of The Summer is pushing the envelope both of genres and the musical abilities of artist Dar Williams.

To start with, Dar Williams is a singer-songwriter who sings with a glorious alto voice and she has the ability to articulate fast, full lines of music while still singing and expressing emotions. So, for example, on "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts," she melodically declares, ". . .Some felt afraid and undefended, so they got mean / And they pretended what they knew made them belong more than you" to a straight out rock and roll beat.

Williams is a genuine artist and she wrote ten of the eleven tracks ("Better Things" was by Ray Davies) on End Of The Summer. She sings and plays guitar on all of the songs and End Of The Summer is very much her musical vision. As a result, it's hard for her core audience to complain that she has created something that is not Dar.

That is not to say that this album is not different from The Honesty Room. Indeed, when End Of The Summer opens with the booming tympany sound and heavy bass, it's clear that this is not a quiet, introverted folk album. Instead, Dar opens big with "Are You Out There" which is a pop-rock sounding song about independent radio stations. It's a cry for the preservation of private radio stations that broadcast the conspiracy theorists and underground musical artists and the true originals who are still struggling to be heard. It's a brilliant piece and it instantly sets a rigorous pace and high quality standard for the songs that follow. But it does sound like a pop-rock track as Dar Williams cries out, "Are you out there, can you hear this, / Jimmy Olson, Johnny Memphis / I was out her listening all the time, / And though the static walls surround me / You were out there, and you found me, / I was out here listening all the time" (“Are You Out There?”). Would that most Top 40 songs were written so well!

Williams does not disappoint, though, continuing the storytelling nature of her lyrics with "Party Generation" (about aging and mentoring the next generation of slackers), "The End Of The Summer" (about going back to school and facing expectations), and "My Friends" (about the need to have others in one's life), even as the guitars, drum, and bass abandon the more familiar and acoustic sound from Williams's earlier works.

And Dar Williams continues to innovate in her writing, as she sings about going to therapy ("What Do You Hear In These Sounds?"), the expectations placed on the next generation ("Teenagers, Kick Our Butts"), and the horrors of nuclear proliferation. Williams does what few serious artists can do by writing with irony and humor when she wants. She has many funny lines, like "I don't go to therapy to find out if I'm a freak / I go and I find the one and only answer every week" ("What Do You Hear In These Sounds"). She balances such humor with the seriousness of social messages, like the cry to stop spending so much on warfare; ". . . we're heading for a nasty business, / Keeps our country growing, / Where the weapons that we're selling / Are the only seeds we're sowing . . ." ("Bought And Sold").

This is the mark of a true original and the less successful moments on the album are when she abandons her originality and when she fails to provide the listener with more. This is a short album; I would have liked more from this talented artist. And her cover of "Better Things" ends the album with a less impressive track than had she finished with one of her own, more lyrically, vocally or musically powerful songs. "It's A War In There" would have ended the album with a real sense of emptiness, which would have flowed very well back into the beginning.

Fans of folk music who are open to listening to an artist who wants to push the envelope will enjoy the lyrical and musical sophistication of Dar Williams and on End Of The Summer, she does not sacrifice her voice. Her vocals are not produced over, keeping her spirit and talents intact and evident. Anyone who likes pop-rock music will find this to be an accessible and intelligent alternative to the drivel currently populating most Top 40 airwaves today.

The best track is "Are You Out There" (which I once listened to twenty times back to back and still love it, it's so extraordinary!) and the weak points are "My Friends" and "Better Things." The rest of this album is solid and of a quality that is hard to debate.

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
In The Time Of Gods


Check out how this album stacks up against all of the others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized from best (work) to worst!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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