Monday, February 21, 2011

Music Review: Dar Williams, _Many Great Companions_

Anyone can throw a song together. Even songs that have some semblance of rhythm, theme, meaning. I even like some of those songs, as Gorillaz demonstrated. Look up the lyrics from the Demon Days album, and you'll not be able to make heads or tails of them. They're just words, put together with a dance beat, and they make a song. What makes Demon Days so effective is that the words they use, the images they conjure up in the mind are like paintings, of color and light, images that tell the complete story of a night's sleep, complete with storyline and symbolism. But the songs themselves aren't stories, but fragments of them.

Paul Simon said that on his trek through the countries of Africa, discovering the beats and tunes that would become his Graceland album, that he learned how to not make songs so linear, so symmetrical. This allows him to use imagery in more of an impressionist fashion, where nothing is solid and plot driven as, say, "The Boxer." Story-songs are not inferior, however, just different. Each strand of songlines become a different type of painting, just as a Monet piece is just as valuable as a portrait by Van Gogh, or a landscape by Turner.

So we've looked at some of the masters of songwriting, and in America there are many that have graces our culture with sound and song. I've always said, that if the Earth becomes overcome with everything and we need to depart it like the Robinson's did on Lost in Space, they would have to take a database of the world's finest works with them. But which would you choose? Arthur C. Clarke decided to eliminate anything that dealt with the biases of Earth, which unfortunately meant ridding the colonists and their descendants of all Religious texts and imagery. But what would you include from the genre of the Popular Song? Sinatra? Dylan? Cher? How about songwriters such as James Taylor or Elton John? There are too many to count, and too many "popular" popular songs that probably should be left out. I don't think you would include the Macarena in the mix, or "The Thong Song," even though they were extremely popular at the time. You have to delve into the art form and find those that truly represent the art form.

I would argue that Dar Williams' work, especially those of her greatest his album, Many Great Companions, would qualify to be included. The intimacy of her lyrics, the complexity of the symbolism, her mastery of using words and music together to paint an image is so precise. She is part of a lineage of songwriter that goes back to the folk days of the 1960's, from Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and James Taylor. As long as the songwriters keep writing, the art form of the Popular Song is in good hands. While we groan over the puerile lyrics of Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber, we can appreciate that there are artists like Dar Williams and David Gray, amongst others, that are writing for the intelligent admirers of song and art.

Especially poignant on this album is "February," which uses symbolism to parallel the weather and the settings of the seasons with a fallen relationship. Also, "When I Was A Boy," tells of a woman who, in her youth, lived as a boy, and then grew up to see how image driven the world is, stereotyping men and women into one form or another. Her songs tell of growing up, losing the innocence of childhood and experiencing the changes in spirituality, of the relationship between teenagers and God. Such fine music. If nothing else, pick up the greatest hits album, the second CD, as mp3 files. You won't be disappointed, and maybe the lines of color and light will come through for you, too.

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