record review: Dar Williams, Promised Land, Paste, 2008
When people describe an artist as underappreciated, what they usually mean is that cynical journalists, merciless market forces and an uneducated listening public have conspired against this person. They blame, in other words, everyone except the artist. And they’re usually right to do so. But Dar Williams—who has been quietly adored by a relatively small but loyal fan base since she debuted on the folk scene in the early 1990s—is a more complex case.
Williams, a native of Mount Kisco, N.Y., is a classic made-for-coffeehouses artist, writing about the world around her, her encounters in it, and the conclusions she’s drawn; she’s as comfortable rhapsodizing about a favorite babysitter (“The Babysitter’s Here,” from her self-released debut, 1993’s The Honesty Room) as she is inveighing against the evil political monolith (see “Empire,” from 2005’s lauded My Better Self). For all the praise she’s received as an incisive writer, there’s little heft to Williams’ lyrics, even if her views are unassailable: “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,” she sings on “Bought And Sold,” from her 1997 release End Of The Summer. It doesn’t help that her music is consistently clean-scrubbed and measured, even at its most expansive. At times, the mildness is unnerving—“Empire” is probably the comeliest song ever about how disgusting imperialism is. Meanwhile, Williams’ voice is just as frustratingly pretty. No matter what she sings about, her albums all have that sun-in-your-hair feel.
Promised Landcrooned Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on My Better Self), here does a rendition of “Midnight Radio,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical about a guy who suffers a botched sex-change operation and lives to sing glam-rock about it. Promised Land’s guest lineup has sterling bona fides, as well: power-pop chameleon Marshall Crenshaw, Gary Louris of Americana demigods The Jayhawks, and veteran singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, who sounds both expert and fresh on the springy, spring-loaded duet “Go To the Woods.” (There’s an old saying in the acting biz: Never work with kids or animals because they’ll upstage you. Let’s officially add Vega to that list.)
Ultimately, though, Promised Land is another version of My Better Self: efficient and mostly unchallenging. It gets off to a chipper start, with the nouveau Nashville tune “It’s Alright,” and there are lots more shiny songs to come. The shimmering “The Easy Way,” for example, could be from a CD by gritless Irish sibling act The Corrs. Vega appears on just one song here, but her influence is felt on the thoughtful “The Tide Falls Away” and the speedy “Buzzer.” On “The Business of Things,” a foggy horn—all doleful and evocative—offers a hint of what richer instrumentation could do for Williams: adding more dishevelment to her music would likely result in some much-needed tension.
Of course, tension isn’t for everyone, and Williams’ devotees will doubtless be blissfully blasting this immaculate album in their sedans on the way back to their cozy middle-class homes. But that will be as far as Promised Land goes—this one won’t launch Dar Williams beyond her circle of fan friends. And maybe it’s not meant to, because that would require Williams to step outside of her comfort zone. That goes for her fans, too. Which makes you wonder: Perhaps, in this case, being underappreciated is a career choice rather than a curse.