Though Dar Williams has been around for roughly two decades, I’ve never listened to her. (I’ve explored the fact that, statistically, I rarely listen to female musicians– in fact, if you look back over the content of this blog, it is shockingly, overwhelmingly male musicians. I don’t really have a good reason for that, but there’s no way to review some of these songs without exploring the gender dynamic.) That’s why, though her new album Many Great Companions is, for Williams fans, familiar ground, I’ll be reviewing it as a completely new disk– because for me, it is.
The first disk is called Songs Revisited with a Guitar and a Few Friends, which is pretty accurate. It’s an acoustic disk that also features Sara and Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), Patty Larkin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. She reworks songs from as far back as 1993 with an acoustic guitar. Having not heard the original versions of most of these songs, I think I’m kind of at a rare advantage: I have nothing to compare them to.
“Calling the Moon” opens the album, and the thing that is immediately obvious is that Williams’ voice is strong and full, which really works with the sparse instrumentation. The first stanza, which begins, “The moon wanted more of my night/ So I turned off my engine and the headlights” is evocative and sets a wonderful scene. Later in the song, Williams’ says she “put her roadmaps away,” and it’s obvious that this is the perfect place to start the album: there’s a definite sense of purpose, which is something I think is necessary for an acoustic disk. There are stand-out lines in this song (as there are in any of her songs): I like the line “As Tennessee wandered in moth-eaten robes/ I am calling the moon.”
The idea of the “pull-out line” seems to run through most of these songs: on occasion, I’d feel my mind slipping away from the music, and then she’d have a line that drew me back in. Probably my favorite song lyrically, “Spring Street,” is so pleasant and lingering that it’s easy to just have it on, and not think about the lyrics. Williams has a way of not allowing the listener to slip away for long. I feel like the first stanza could have come from my diary a few years ago:
I’m sorry that I left you
With your questions all alone
But I was too happy driving
And too angry to drive home
I was thinking about the easy courage
Of my distant friends…
Can I blow this small town
Make a big sound
Like the star of a film noir postcard
Can I just forget the frames I shared with you?
Though I think my favorite part of the song is when she says, “I can find a small apartment/ Where a struggling artist died/ And pretend because I pay the rent/ I know that pain inside.” Williams is an expert at exploring an age fully, which is both the greatest strength and biggest weakness of this retrospective.
Probably my favorite song, musically, on the acoustic disk is “As Cool As I Am,” featuring Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) on guitar. He plays with the same kind of furious organization I think is his trademark, and it really works here. (You can hear the track here). Plus, the repeated line “I will not be afraid of women, I will not be afraid of women,” is really powerful coming from a sweet female voice. And whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or not– whether it’s in response to all of those women out there who dislike women (which, I admitted earlier, I’m afraid I’m biased against female musicians for whatever reason), it’s really clever and interesting. (Also! Don’t miss the acoustic version of “Iowa”– it’s absolutely beautiful.)
Part of what’s difficult for me about this album is that I could have really used Dar Williams during high school and the first part of college. A lot of the things she explores and talks about were things I struggled with: wanting to have answers to higher questions, all while trying to keep a sense of humor about it. On disk 2, there’s a song called “Teen for God,” and being from Texas, I knew that kid. I would have appreciated the story in “The Christians and the Pagans.” And now I can listen to them, and I like them, but I think they would have meant more to me then, which is frustrating. It’s the same thing that works with “Spring Street.” I’m only a few years away from that song having been relevant in my life, but with some of the other songs, I feel like I’m looking back on my life, too.
So I wonder: will I come back to these songs in several years and will they mean different things to me then? Is that why Williams herself wanted to record an acoustic version and change the sound up? I can’t know the answer to that.
Sonically, the album is beautiful; the acoustic guitar reminds me a little bit of the poet Ellis Paul’s, and the pacing and understatement is reminiscent of some of the tracks on Josh Ritter’s Hello Starling (*specifically “California” and “Baby, That’s Not All”). Lyrically, it’s strong and thoughtful, and more than that, thought-provoking. However, I’ve had to wrestle with her lyrics more than I usually do with my reviews. I don’t think that’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just how this one turned out.
The second disk is The Best of Dar Williams, and it’s a little more straightforward: the track-list is stacked with fast upbeats to start, which seems to allow a breather from the thoughtfulness the first disk requires. I was shocked to realize I’ve known and loved the song “It’s Alright” for years. Though the acoustic songs have amazing attention to detail, the full-band versions showcase the same care. They’re really something to listen to, and I loved this disk. (*Although I prefer the acoustic version of “Cool As I Am”.)
Many Great Companions is obviously a very personal journey for Williams herself, but it requires a journey of the audience, as well: I think that’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to do, as a writer and a musician. This album has also caused me to look into her back catalogue, which is exactly what a greatest hits album should do. I definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you haven’t heard of Dar Williams. It seems like a perfect introduction.
I should be posting about a contest to win a copy of Many Great Companions in the next few days, so stay posted for that! I also have a few cool interviews forthcoming, and of course, my thoughts on the new Old 97′s disk The Grand Theatre Volume 1.
And whether you’re a new or a seasoned Dar Williams fan, this may be of interest: tomorrow, she’s doing a live session and Q&A at 11:30 Central on Livestream. If you’d rather just be on Katie Darby Recommends, though (and I understand!) the whole thing will be streaming here, and all you have to do is press “chat”.