Brooks Williams: Hundred Year Shadow
by George Graham
(Signature Sounds 1248 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/10/99)
In the artistically productive world of folk-influenced singer-songwriters, it is the women who have been attracting most of the attention, with artists ranging from Indigo Girls to Ani DiFranco to Susan Werner to Patty Larkin. This is, of course, a historic reversal from the complexion of the music scene back in the golden days of Sixties folkies. But the contemporary folk scene has also brought forth some outstanding male artists over the past few years, people who for one reason or another have not been getting quite the recognition. The most notable is probably John Gorka, but there are other bright lights on the scene including David Wilcox, Pierce Pettis and Brooks Williams. The Massachusetts-based Williams has just released his ninth album entitled Hundred Year Shadow.
Brooks Williams is distinctive in that as well as being a singer-songwriter, he also has a reputation as a formidable guitarist, and he usually includes at least one instrumental in each of his records. In fact in 1997 did a joint album of instrumental music with guitarist Jim Henry. Williams is a first-rate lyric writer and has a warm appealing vocal style that has been compared to James Taylor. In a more than ten-year recording career he has been attracting audiences through constant touring and a succession of albums, including four on the nationally-distributed Green Linnet label. He has worked with a variety of musicians on bis various albums, including a couple of records made with Canadian musicians, such as Colin Linden. For Hundred Year Shadow, Williams worked with Boston-area musicians, and also is now on a Bay State record label, Signature Sounds, which has been releasing records by some of the Boston area's prolific "new folk" scene.
Hundred Year Shadow continues Williams' appealing sound, and turns out to be one of his best yet. The musicians joining him are outstanding, including bassist Marty Ballou, who contributes much with his rich all-acoustic bass sound, drummer Lorne Entress, who is also a member of the instrumental surf-rock band 4-Piece Suit, and Michael Bellar on keyboards. Stylistically, the album occasionally shows some jazz and blues influence, as well as contemporary folk. As on previous albums, Williams draws on some compositions by others, including Nashville songwriter Buddy Miller, a piece by the late folk-bluesman Ted Hawkins, and a Beatles song given an unusual twist. With Williams being as much the instrumental stylist as he is, every track on Hundred Year Shadow is interesting musically, either for the instrumentation and arrangements, or from the set of influences drawn upon, which in this case range from funk to Hawaiian music. The CD has two instrumentals, though neither rises to the level of most of the other material on the record.
The album gets under way with one of its highlights, Darker Kind Of Blue. The lyrics are about someone suffering from depression, while the arrangement is an interesting dichotomy between a funky beat and a darker musical quality. It's one of the few places you'll hear electric guitar on this CD, though it's still sparing. <<>>
A considerable contrast to that is another of Hundred Year Shadow's most memorable tracks. Mockingbird Hill, features lyrics about a homecoming approached with some misgivings, though in the end past conflicts are put aside. The arrangement here is much more folky, but with the added piano of Chris Haynes. <<>>
Another of the album's best sets of lyrics comes on House of Truth, about the arduous quest for verity. The arrangement is an energetic -- what I suppose could be called -- acoustic rock approach. <<>>
The first of the covers is a song written by Buddy Miller called My Love Will Follow You, a composition from the Nashville scene, which Williams said he heard more as a soul song than a country tune. The result is very tasteful. <<>>
The subject of truth also forms the basis of the Williams original Willie Mae Brown, which deals with degrees and shades of truth, appropriate for this day and age. <<>>
The better of the of the two instrumentals is called Kar-Kar, named after a musician from Mali in West Africa. Williams jokingly refers to the resulting style as "Cape Horn Surf Music." <<>>
The darker side of the album is also represented with another of the its non-originals, The Good and the Bad, written by the late Ted Hawkins. The lyrics, about aging and bad relationships, are given an appropriately low-down musical treatment. <<>>
The album ends with a solo performance, and yet the most interesting arrangement on the record. The Beatles song I Will was combined with what Williams calls Hendrix chords, thus giving the song a very different, and vaguely sinister complexion. <<>>
Brooks Williams new CD Hundred Year Shadow is one of the best yet from this appealing and creative singer-songwriter and guitarist, who has been recording since 1986. A combination of first-rate original material, strong both musically and lyrically, as well as arrangements which are always interesting and give unexpected textures to many of the songs, combine to make for fine listening that reveals something new each time you hear it. Williams is in excellent form both vocally and on his guitars. The backing musicians are likewise very tasteful and contribute much to the recording.
In the technical department, Williams produced the CD himself, with Mark Thayer doing the engineering. Williams' work on the arrangements and on giving the album its distinctive mostly acoustic but eclectic sound, contributes much to the songs. The sound quality and clarity of the mix is first rate, thought there is a bit more compression in mastering process than is needed for this kind of music. That compression takes away from the dynamics of this mostly acoustic performance. The only major complaint one might have is about the CD's relatively short 40-minute playing time.
While a lot of attention has been focussed on the women of the new folk scene, veteran Brooks Williams is a reminder that the scene is a prolific one, and his new album ought to help him achieve more of the public notice he so well deserves.
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