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Alan Williams: Currents
(Blue Gentian Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/24/2022)
The long-time notion was that rock & roll and the academic world somehow were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Decades ago, rock was considered unworthy of the ivory tower at best, and anathema at worst. But generations have passed, and so have past prejudices, and rock and pop have become the subject of courses of rigorous study, and a lot of notable people in the academic world have played in bands.
This week we have the latest album by a serious academic who spends most of his time teaching, doing research, and has written dozens of academic papers on music, sound, recording and the like. It’s Alan Williams, whose latest release is called Currents. A North Carolina native, Williams played in various bands coming up, but pursued an academic direction, getting his Ph.D. in ethnomusicolgy at Brown University. He has been a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and was chairman of their music department for several years. On his website, he posts a 70-page resume, with numerous accomplishments with papers, work as a studio musician, producer and solo artist, and working with and touring with people like Patty Larkin. All the while, he has continued making music as a creative outlet. He was in a group called Knots and Crosses, and is the principal songwriter and vocalist with the band Birdsong at Morning.
Williams’ new release Currents is a solo album more or less by circumstance. It was written and recorded largely during the pandemic. That provided grist for some of the lyrics on the album, and also to collaborate with his musical colleagues on the album remotely, largely by e-mailing audio files back and forth. He worked again with drummer Ben Wittman, who is based in Canada, plus Greg Porter, the co-founder with Williams of Birdsong at Morning. Other supporting musicians include a ten-piece string section and horns from the U-Mass Lowell faculty and students, along with keyboard man Nathan Sharples, percussionist Jeff Fischer, and guitarists Thomas Juliano and Eric Giribaldi. Williams says that the events. restrictions and adaptations necessitated by the pandemic provided inspiration for some of the lyrics. But there are also a couple of straight love songs on the album. And there is a cover of a relatively obscure Beatles song.
The sound is somewhat similar in approach to Williams’ work with Birdsong at Morning, though the new album can get rather electric at times, but also scale back to some mostly solo performances with guitar and vocal.
Opening is a piece called Think of the Night which sums up the sound of the album, with the arrangement cranked up and Williams saying that the string section was central to his concept of the song. Williams also admits that he himself is not sure what all the lyrics are about, though he says that the chorus is sung from the standpoint of someone with strong delusions of grandeur. <<>>
The following song, For My Heaven was, according to Williams, directly influenced by Joni Mitchell and her altered guitar tunings, using that as the sonic basis. The lyrics came much later, while on what Williams calls a sabbatical in Hawaii, inspired by the surroundings. <<>>
The most intimate-sounding piece on the album, Fall from the Sky, is performed largely solo on guitar. Williams writes that it is one of many songs in his catalog that “mentions stuff seen in the sky (and beyond).” <<>>
One interesting surprise on the album is a cover of one of the Beatles’ more obscure songs, Love You To transformed into the one of the album’s lengthier tracks with an elaborate arrangement. <<>>
The centerpiece of Currents is song called Season of the Lottery which Williams says began to take shape early in the pandemic, and in the wake of the summer of Black Lives Matter and the fate’s randomness. <<>>
The album’s production turns toward the larger scale on the composition Before I Wake Up, which Williams says came to to him as he was out on one of his daily walks during the time when the pandemic kept him off campus. It’s a song of unrequited love, about which he said “The shadow of Celine Dion loomed large.” <<>> He called on another colleague and music theory teacher in the U-Mass Lowell music department, Garrett Michaelsen, for the trumpet solo. <<>>
Williams goes out all-out progressive rock on the track Currents with its complicated rhythmic figure and interesting structure, complete with the string section and some added sound effects. <<>>
Dr. Alan Williams says that his duties as a professor or music require him to refrain from expressing his own musical views, stylistic preferences and the like to his students. So he looks upon his albums as his creative outlet. And over the years, he has made an interesting and rewarding body of work on his solo albums, and his work with Birdsong at Morning and Knots and Crosses. His new album Currents, like many recordings being issued recently, had it genesis during the pandemic, with its paradigm-shifting changes in the way music was being created. The result is an absorbing and very listenable album that nevertheless is full of interesting musical ideas and which ranges from mellow singer-songwriter mode to big art-rock production.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with the mix well capturing the multiple facets of the arrangements; Williams’ mellow vocals are recorded warmly; and there is a decent dynamic range with the loud and soft passages fairly well-preserved.
The old supposed line between rock and the academic world is long gone. And Alan Williams on his new album personifies that.
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