Dar Williams is rightly regarded as one of the very best of America’s singer songwriters, a ranking bestowed some years hence, by no less weighty a tome than The New Yorker. Respected as a mighty fine lyricist, her songs are known by turns for their poetry, honesty, empathy, wit and wisdom, ranging from the deeply personal to the wildly imaginative. During the last 20 odd years of criss-crossing America, she’s released more than a dozen LPs of real quality song craft, highly prized by all who have got to know her work. The release of Emerald, her brand new album, backed up with one of her all too infrequent visits to the UK, is therefore worthy of a double-celebration. The really good news is that the record is as good as anything she’s done so far, if not better. Featuring 11 tracks of the highest quality and packed with some exceptional and varied musical help, Emerald also includes several notable guest appearances to further enhance its credentials.
While Dar’s career properly began with the release of The Honesty Room originally put out on her own label in 1993, in actual fact things had really started some three years before that. Encouraged by her vocal tutor, Jeannie Deva, Dar had recorded and released two low key albums, which were only available on cassette and largely sold at her shows, although three songs from the second of those, All Of My Heroes Are Dead, would be reworked for that 93 release. Around this time Dar came to the attention of Joan Baez, opening some shows for her and even joining her on stage to sing duets, one of the results of which can be heard on Joan’s album Ring Them Bells, recorded at New York’s Bottom Line in 95. Baez would continue to perform and also record Some of Dar’s songs, with two appearing on 97’s Gone From Danger.
By the time of those first recordings, Dar had graduated from college and seemed destined for a theatrical career, although she’d started the whole parallel song writing thing early. She grew up in Chappaqua in New York State where she was encouraged to pursue artistic expression by her progressively liberal and supportive parents, themselves both graduates of prestigious New England colleges. Dar took to the guitar at just nine and within a couple of years was writing her own songs. She got involved in Theatre on moving to Boston, where she eventually became stage manager for the city’s opera company, but at the same time continuing to write, take vocal lessons and perform. A brief spell in California proved creatively productive, but the Boston scene proved hard to crack and so a move to the more relaxed environs of Northampton Massachusetts was made. It was there in the flourishing coffee shop scene that her confidence grew, and Dar really started to blossom into the artist we know today.
When her career did take off, Dar steadily built an enthusiastic audience who eventually set up a fan run website, which continued right through until last year. Her political and environmental has put her firmly into the progressive camp. She has involved herself in local politics as well as supporting causes through benefits and Dar now runs her own Give Bees A Camp project, combining music and planting perennial flowers to help the struggling bee population. Dar is also a published author as well as teacher.
That first proper album, The Honesty Room, was picked up by American indie Razor And Tie and the label has pretty much been her home ever since, although Emerald gets its UK release through Bread & Butter Music, the label who also launched Folk Radio UK favourite Stephen Kellogg a couple of years ago. It’s an astute signing, mostly because this is an extremely good record, and with the tour to support it, it’s one that will hopefully get the much merited attention it deserves. The sleeve notes claim, “This album came together over many latitudes and longitudes,” which is born out by different producers and musical line-ups. Most of the songs are of course Dar’s although there is a co-write with Jim Lauderdale and also Kat Goldman’s Weight Of The World and Johnny Appleseed from Joe Strummer’s Mescalero days.
The sound feels mostly big, full and electric but the varied moods are striking and no more so than over the first two tracks. The first, Something To Get Through, finds Dar in the grip of melancholy, with the sweetening swell of fine harmonies from Courtney Jaye and Tom Whall and great emotional waves of lap steel and carefully arpeggiated guitar from Josh Kaler, who produces and plays most instruments. Dar is known for battling with depression, but here it isn’t her master and as the title suggests, “It’s just something to get though, I bet you will be laughing with your friends in the light of a new day, Laughing away, just not today.”
By contrast, FM Radio is a brilliant sun-kissed, power-pop anthem to the joys of growing up with the radio on. It’s smart, funny and has a killer tune, which makes good use of the talents of musical prodigy Jonny Polonsky and Dar’s contemporary Jill Sobule. References to Crawdaddy and the line, “We are the cosmos, we are the glam kids,” give it maximum hip credentials too, while the rhyme about Lou Reed and Jackson Browne is both bob-on and hilarious. If you’re not grinning broadly by the end, seek medial advice.
There’s some serious guitar talent involved over the next two songs with the young virtuoso Trevor Gordon Hall accompanying on the haunting Empty Plane, a song that bristles with little details, but takes a strange trance like turn into dreamland. The rather older virtuoso Richard Thompson is typically elegant as he wanders around the melody of Emerald, itself a beautiful meander through forest and river that resolves in Dar’s own garden. Both songs seem to take her back home in clever and unexpected twists of the tale.
The next two deal with aspects of relationships, with Slippery Slope offering a wry assessment of those moments when tempers fray, but thankfully there’s sufficient self awareness to pull things back from the edge of a descent into falling apart. It’s a co-write and sung as a duet with Jim Lauderdale, who delivers the delightful line, “I am a horse’s ass in a dancing class.” Here Tonight puts the edgy nerves of a dinner date under the microscope as Dar sings, “Twenty different dresses across my bed, So Many questions inside my head, A Simple dinner I cooked for hours, He brings a mason jar and a bunch of flowers.”
The next trio of songs are more troubled, although in fairness Girl Of The World is more questioning that fraught. Dar simply seems to be admitting that she hasn’t planned her life and asking whether she is doing things right. Unusually it features three musicians more usually associated with instrumental music in pianist Heidi Breyer, cellist Eugene Freisen and Will Ackerman on guitar. The story of Mad River, starts with carefree high jinks, summer swimming and young love, but ends with a couple being sucked under in the mad river of life, with mounting debts and no supporting infrastructure, as pay and benefits are cut. It’s a story vividly told and regrettably all too common. The track, produced by Brad Wood, again features Jonny Polonsky’s guitar and Milk Carton Kids, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan on backing vocals. Kat Goldman’s Weight Of The World is beautifully sung by Dar with Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche against a string laden backing, as Dar acknowledges, “And the weight of the world was never yours to keep.”
If the questioning continues through the last two songs, it’s follows on from the thoughts of Mad River and a search for the bruised heart of America. Joe Strummer’s take on Johnny Appleseed has an obvious chime with Dar’s concerns as she sings, “If you’re after getting the honey, hey, Then Don’t go killing all the bees.” But it also blurs in Martin Luther King and an ominous black Buick 49 and warnings of crop failure, with a fulsome rockabilly beat and some lovely Dobro from David Lilley and Wurlitzer piano from Rob Hyman. There’s even Eric Bazillian’s hurdy-gurdy lurking in the mix. New York Is A Harbour meanwhile, strips things back to Dar and Bryn Roberts’ piano. Gathering up some iconic imagery, it’s partly a love song to the Big Apple, but one that seems to be asking whether the torchbearer who stands tall at the gateway to America has lost her soul, as the repeated title becomes a powerful mantra.
By any reckoning Emerald is an exceptional album and even amongst Dar’s own output it stands tall. It also fits right alongside her contemporaries and the likes of Gretchen Peters, Allison Moorer, her sister Shelby Lynne and even Lucinda Williams, all of whom have earned fulsome praise here on Folk Radio UK. They are all very different of course, unique talents in their own right. But all, like Dar, write in three dimensions and that, when the spell hits you, can conjure up that magical fourth dimension, with that feeling that music will indeed save your mortal soul, to borrow from a famous song. It channels the heartfelt, the honest, the vital and and the poetic into one electrifying whole and if there’s any justice, in FM, even has a big hit single. This Girl Of The World absolutely deserves our unconditional love.
Dar will be in the UK imminently with Lucy Wainwright Roche, don’t miss out!
Review by: Simon Holland
Released May 18th, 2015 via Bread And Butter Music
Order via: Amazon
May 21 – Birmingham, The Glee Club
May 23 – Belfast, Errigle Inn
May 24 – Dublin, The Workmans Club
May 26 – Camden Town, London, The Jazz Cafe
May 28 – Liverpool, Arts Club
May 29 – Otley, Korks
May 30 – Krefeld, Kulturfabrik, Germany
Jun 01 – Brighton, Komedia
More details here: darwilliams.com/tour