Friday, May 1, 2015

Dar Williams Noodles Her Way Through Emerald

The Good: Decent lyrics, Great voice, Moments of musical diversity
The Bad: Short, Unsurprising vocals, Musically un-catchy
The Basics: Dar Williams's latest album, Emerald might be better than most music being churned out today, but it stands as one of her less remarkable albums.

It is rare that I am anywhere near the cutting edge of new music, but thanks to some of my favorite artists popping up with projects on, I'm getting better at having new reviews of genuinely new music. To wit, those of us who supported Dar Williams's new album, Emerald, on Pledgemusic have received it (at least in digital form) in advance of its release next week to the general public. So, I've been listening to Emerald on high rotation for a couple of days and I had the title of my review ready since the first listen!

But as I've listened to Emerald over and over again, I was not actually sure what my opinion of it was (other than noting that it did not have a single memorable tune - melody). I realized my opinion when, while looking for lyrics for my review, I was thrilled to see that Dar Williams is performing this very night only three and a half hours away from where I live. My wife gave me permission to go and I was about to buy tickets when she said, "Maybe she'll be doing some of her new stuff!" Before I could form a conscious thought, I found myself declining the opportunity to see Williams in concert again (I've seen her twice now and had a great time both times!). So, Emerald . . . maybe not Dar Williams's best album ever and hardly a sale's pitch for encouraging fans to come out for her new tour.

With only eleven tracks clocking out at forty-three minutes, Emerald is a short Dar Williams album. (Presumably, I won't know for certain until the physical copy with the proper credits arrives next week) Emerald is the creative vision of Dar Williams. She has a tendency to write her own material (though she co-wrote at least one track onEmerald) and play an instrument on each track. Williams is occasionally accompanied on songs on Emerald - "Slippery Slope" is a duet with Jim Lauderdale and she has backing with other female vocalists on "FM Radio" - but the primary vocals are very clearly from Dar Williams. As Williams is now in complete control of her music career, it would be surprising if she were not involved with the engineering and production of Emerald.

The music of Dar Williams is often about statement, but it is hard for fans of hers not to be able to easily pick out one of her tunes; I frequently find myself humming "Flinty Kind Of Woman," "As Cool A I Am" or "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono." I still get chills every time I hear the opening chords of "The Great Unknown." There are no songs quite so memorable on Emerald. While "FM Radio" is an up-beat, satirical pop number, the rest of the songs are entirely unmemorable on the music front. For sure, I know (rationally) that Dar Williams composed music to go with these songs, but "Something To Get Through" and "Empty Plane" sound like Williams's song "The Hudson." "Slippery Slope" features two guitars playing and I am sure the artists are not just randomly strumming or plicking the strings, but after eight listens to this album, I know if I heard "Slippery Slope" without the vocals out in the store, I'd have absolutely no clue what song it was. Williams has a number of great songs that do not have strong melodies ("Mortal City" comes instantly to mind); Emerald is packed with them, though. The songs that sound like they have a tune to them sound derivative - "Here Tonight" is on now and I know it sounds like three other up-beat Dar Williams songs. Musically, Emerald is an unimpressive album, though Dar Williams takes some musical risks by filling out the sound on songs like "Here Tonight" and "FM Radio" with additional production elements or instruments.

Vocally, Emerald is undeniably Dar Williams. Williams sings comfortably within her established vocal range, clearly and energetically throughout most of the album. She emotes well on the sadder, slower, songs like "Empty Plane" and "Girl Of The World." That said, none of the vocals are in any way pushing the range of the artist or the expectations of the listener. Williams sounds good on Emerald, but there's no spark or satire there. Having seen Williams in concert a few times, she has wit and enthusiasm and on Emerald her vocals are straightforward and adequate, but not interesting. (The best analogy I can give is in acting; she gets through the lines with an adequate amount of emotional representation for the lyrics, but she never makes the lines her own or infuse them with anything unexpected or remarkable.)

Lyrically, Dar Williams is as clever and as interesting as ever, which at least makes Emerald listenable. Deeply political as always, she sings about the nature of aging and economy on "Mad River" and activism on "Girl Of The World." Dar Williams opens Emerald strong with the powerfully personal song "Something To Get Through." Anyone who has ever struggled through personal adversity can easily relate to the lines "Wake up and you still feel the same / It's hard to move when you're reeling from the pain" ("Something To Get Through"). "Weight Of The World" is similarly impressive for Williams's simple, direct insight on the human condition set to music. Fans of wonderful music will appreciate that Dar Williams can write and she brings her talent in full on Emerald.

As one who shelled out in advance for the work, part of me felt some pressure to rate Emerald high, but the objective reviewer in me just could not allow that. Emerald is a decidedly average album from one of the superlative American singer-songwriters of our age. It's hard not to be disappointed when an amazing artist puts out something that is average, but Emerald ends up there and leaves one hoping that with her next album, Dar Williams will return to wowing us.

The best track is "Something To Get Through," the low point is "Here Tonight" (I like the lyrics to "New York Is A Harbor" less, but damned if Dar Williams doesn't know how to end an album well, musically!).

For other works by Dar Williams, please check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room
Mortal City
End Of The Summer
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


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

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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