CD Review of Promised Land by Dar Williams
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Dar Williams:
Promised Land

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

hroughout a string of lovely (though low-key) albums released over the past fourteen years or so, Dar Williams’ biggest struggle has been to attain a bigger breakthrough. Certainly there’s no faulting her material; she creates folk songs filled with wistful yearnings and forlorn desire -- the kind of music that makes for a good fit on quiet, unhurried Sunday mornings or during a late night repose. Nevertheless, it’s a crowded field out there, and competing with like-minded singer/songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris, she sometimes seems to slip below the radar when other artists enter the fray.

That’s a shame too, because her past efforts – 1999’s Cry, Cry, Cry and The Green World, The Beauty of the Rain in 2003 and My Better Self , released two years later – were all admirable efforts and worthy additions to her canon. Still, it was clear that Williams needed that extra additive, something that would gain her the attention she so definitely deserved.

That added element has finally arrived in the person of producer Brad Wood, a man whose extensive resume has mostly found him working in rockier realms. So while the choice to hire him behind the boards might seem somewhat out of sync in terms of style and stance, he brings a new vitality to Williams’ mellow musings. As a result, Promised Land proves to be her most effusive effort yet, one built on reverberating refrains and melodies that encroach on the consciousness after only the briefest encounter. To be sure, no one will accuse her of bowing to pop precepts, but clearly, she’s made attempts to enrich her sound and bring it out of the background. The set’s best songs –“It’s Alright,” “Buzzer,” “Troubled Times” and “Summerday” – make an instant impression through compelling choruses that ring with affirmation and elation. Even her quieter tunes reflect a more determined mindset, with “The Tide Falls Away” and “Holly Free” recalling the tangled desire of Sandy Denny in their atmospheric intrigue.

While Wood could take credit for these enhanced tones and textures, especially by bolstering her backing with some high profile players -- Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega and session superstar Greg Leisz among them -- Williams asserts her own presence here as well. All but two tracks are credited to her, and while she shares the songwriting on a couple of others – with the likes of ex-Jayhawk Gary Louris and Rob Hyman of the Hooters – she’s easily outdone herself. However, one also senses she’s newly inspired, a feeling alluded to on “Midnight Radio” where, in its final verse, she hails a roll call of famous female predecessors: “Here’s to Patti, And Tina, And Yoko, Aretha, And Nona, And Nico, And me… “ That she includes herself in such notable company is telling, but with Promised Land she does indeed find herself on a higher plateau.

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