Under my eyelids, it’s summer. I’m 10 years old, lying on shaded grass listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s latest single. Call me Mister Softy, but Dar Williams’ latest release caught me in the right mood. It took me back to a time when I wasn’t a child, I wasn’t an adult, I was just admiring the Beauty of the Rain.
A friend asked me, “Isn’t Dar Williams just folky, whatever crap?”ÊI couldn’t agree more, but there’s something in this album that’s a little different. Dar Williams has enlisted an all-star roster of musicians including John Medeski, Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss, playing an assortment of instruments rarely found in folk. Some songs use a Hammond organ, others a Wulitzer electric, and the third track has a 12-string guitar.
David Mansfield is probably the first violinist ever to play in tune on a pop album. Alison Krauss of “O Brother Where Art Thou?” fame adds a welcome country tinge to a few songs. The album has an amazingly polished production value, which ordinarily I would be opposed to, but in this case it works. A grungy indie feel would not have worked on this album, and an overly processed pop style a la Britney Spears would also have been inappropriate. At the end of the lyrics, Dar Williams writes where each song was written, such as the title track which began in Washington Square and finished somewhere in Alaska. This is not your average singer-songwriter wailing, “Life is beautiful — life stinks.” Dar Williams is trying to make folk relevant in today’s post-grunge era.
That said, the album lacks a certain freshness present in, let’s say, more relevant genres such as rock and roll. The main problem with the current folk scene is that it is virtually a watered-down amalgam of country, bluegrass and rock. Folk is no longer pop (not that it ever really was) and it has not retained the newness it had 30 years ago. The Beauty of the Rain does not escape that sweeping criticism. Dar Williams would suit her talent well by moving into a different mode of expression. She has a loyal following of lesbian neo-hippies, but she should consider branching out a little to the rest of the population.
For example, the latest Walkmen CD which I have had in my stereo virtually nonstop since I bought it has not become tired yet. The Walkmen have a new sound that only becomes more interesting with every listening. When it comes to Dar Williams, we’ve heard it all before. Songs like “The Mercy of the Fallen” make a catchy single but do not make me want to keep coming back. They are the type of songs that MTV can play to death when we really had no interest the first time. Folk has its niche in music history, but it’s important to leave it in the past. The struggle to keep it alive is evidenced in Dar’s need to bring in musicians from other fields. I applaud her gesture, but it does not achieve the variety promised from the packaging.
This album shows that Dar Williams is capable of more as a musician. However, she lacks the honesty of Belle and Sebastian or the integrity of Mark Kozelek. The album was enjoyable and it took me to a place I did not mind visiting. However, if The Beauty of the Rain was a tasty dessert it would be a dining hall pudding that has been out so long it has whipped cream, a cherry, and a mint leaf. (Translation: Dar Williams is too talented to waste her voice on this “folky, whatever crap”).