Like many music fans, I was introduced to Joy Williams when she was in the group, the Civil Wars, with John Paul White, in 2008. The story goes they met at a songwriting camp, meshed and decided to go from there. They exemplified the term Americana music, that hybrid of folk and country, with acoustic and sparse arrangements, lyrics that were deep and dark and mournful, with wonderful harmonies. Their songs reminded me of some of the Band’s work, in that they were dynamically paired, like any combination of Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, and could complement each other’s songs, wistfully harmonizing around the edges, adding layers and extra texture that captivated the listener.
Their first album, Barton Hollow, was very successful, with multiple award recognitions, including Grammys, and the band seemed on their way. But, with great success often comes discord. For whatever reason, the duo began internally fighting. Much like Cream, which Clapton broke up after three albums, the Civil Wars released their second album, The Civil Wars, in 2013. The tension within the songs seemed to make the songs stronger, giving them a power that was lacking from the first album. The harmonies and arrangements were there, but the underlying thought that this was a band in transition was evident.
How similar their situation was to Richard and Linda Thompson. They met during their time in Fairport Convention. He was a shy guitarslinger and songwriter. She had a beautiful voice that expressed deep felt emotion and brought a joy to countermand Richard’s often dark and somber lyrics. Richard and Linda were together a lot longer than Joy and John Paul, but trouble was just around the corner. In 1982, Richard and Linda’s Shoot Out the Lights was released, but the couple had separated before that. Their songs on that album captured the animosity between them, with strong images of loss. It was powerful and, at the same time, sad, much like The Civil Wars.
When discussing women in popular music today, the conversation inevitably turns to power pop stars, like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, etc., and the resurgence of women in country. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to hear the singing of a mature woman, in the tradition of Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, Aretha Franklin, and Ella Fitzgerald. Someone with the chops, who lets her experiences break through and can express her life’s choices. Joy Williams has done that with her album, Venus.
Technically, her sixth solo album, Venus is her first album since the Civil Wars’ breakup and her first on the radar since her massive success with that group. This is very age appropriate, with Williams connecting to her audience as a strong woman, musically and lyrically. Even the album title pays tribute to the Roman Goddess of love, sexuality, fertility, desire.
The first thing you notice is that voice. Powerful and haunting, comparisons to Emmylou Harris are fair, I think, though Emmylou’s approach is more straightforward. Joy’s voice seems to wrap around the music, punching in the air, darting in and out of the melody, expressive and, at times, explosive. As a songwriter, Joy Williams isn’t afraid to share her life, making this album very personal.
The best songs, Before I Sleep, One Day I Will, Not Good Enough, The Dying Kind, and Welcome Home embrace Williams’ strengths as that singer who wears her heart on her sleeve and as a listener, you connect to it immediately and are taken deep into the song.
The songs, Woman (Oh Mama) and What a Good Woman Does reflect the maturity Joy has embraced over the years, with Woman (Oh Mama) the obvious hit single, courtesy of a driving drum beat and powerful message. (Watch Joy perform this song of Seth Meyer’s Late Show. http://www.nbc.com/late-night-with-seth-meyers/video/joy-williams-performance-woman-oh-mama/2865267?onid=146956#vc146956=1)
The production of the album is solid. The arrangements, though a bit more complex than the Civil Wars’ songs, do not get in the way of Williams’ voice and provide a nice gateway to letting Joy weave in and out of the songs.
If I had one or two minor quibbles over the album, it would be: One, the album is too short; it clocks in at around 38 minutes, and two, I would have liked to have had a couple of songs that were more raucous and up-tempo. Joy can really excel on that type of song and by having it on Venus would have really given the album some breathing room in between the mid-tempo/slow songs.
Venus is a terrific album and Joy Williams keeps the momentum going for strong women making music on their terms. Really, Florence Welch, Brittany Howard, Lady Gaga, Roseann Cash, Shawn Colvin, Diana Krall and, probably, Beyonce are the first women that come to mind when I think in those terms. I miss the days of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Mary Travers, Sandy Denny, later career Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton who brought their unique perspective to music. If we keep getting stellar efforts from Joy and many of her contemporaries, the gender gap will close significantly.