It’s easy to take Dar Williams’ songwriting ability for granted, to simply assume that her songs arrive effortlessly, all shiny and refreshingly smart. That would not be giving the woman her due because behind the pitch-perfect production, the infectious melodies, the rhyming witticisms and warm harmonies there’s hours of effort, editing and a lifetime of experience.
Long time fans of Dar Williams can attest to the fact that hearing a new album from her is like getting the chance to sit down with an old friend to catch up on what’s been going on in her life and what her thoughts are on current events. Williams has a remarkable ability to write in a style that feels conversational without becoming cluttered or distracted. This is where the all-important editing process comes in; Dar Williams’ songs get to the heart of a story with just enough details to make it intriguing while keeping the sentiment at a minimum and eschewing the extraneous chatter.
Brad Wood, who’s previous work has been with Smashing Pumpkins, Pete Yorn and Liz Phair, produces Promised Land with crisp efficiency. The songs snap with sharp precision, jingly guitars, layered choruses, and Dar’s bright vocals riding above the happy wave of sound. But fear not, this pop-production doesn’t alter the integrity of Williams’ lyrics but rather makes them more assessable, and in some instances, enhances them. An example of this is the ear-grabbing “Buzzer.” With its tapping rhythm and lovely melody you’re deep into the song before you begin to realize this is a tale of compromised ethics. The jauntiness of the song suggests how insidiously compromise entangles us.
“It’s Alright” is quintessential material from Williams. The music kicks off with a countrified electric guitar lick then settles into layers of acoustic guitars, harmony vocals from Marshall Crenshaw and clap-along percussion (provided by Travis McNabb of Better than Ezra); meanwhile Williams sings about the challenge of personal and political change. Suzanne Vega joins Williams on the folk-rocker “Go to the Woods” with its very funny and thought provoking lyrics that, once again, suggest we examine our fear of the unknown. Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) joins her on the evocative “The Tide Falls Away.”
As on other recent albums Williams provides a couple of intriguing cover songs. Fountains of Wayne’s “Troubled Times” ends up sounding like a Dar composition but, by far, the more interesting of the songs is “Midnight Radio” a song taken from the musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Williams performs it acoustically and brings a very different feel to this homage to the great divas of song. Her focus digs into the spiritual core of the song and highlights the redemptive nature of music.