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.
Der Bingle: A Short Appreciation of Bing Crosby
He was once the most popular singer ever.
He recorded over 1600 songs over a 58 year recording career. His records have sold over one billion copies. He had 38 number one hits, including the most popular song ever.
He appeared on about 4000 radio programs.
His television show regularly was watched by over 50 million people weekly.
He appeared in 83 movies and sold over one billion tickets, which puts him third overall on the most popular actor category, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. He was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won one, and introduced fourteen Oscar nominated songs in these films, which won four.
He is largely forgotten, with the exception of this time of year, where his music is rotated liberally and his name is synonymous with the holiday season.
He is Bing Crosby whose life and legacy still live on among those of us who cherish popular singing.
And that’s what he was, a popular singer, singing songs of every type and genre, with an easy-going style that belied his immense talent. Bing made it look easy and everyone, from all walks of life, would enjoy his music. And man, that voice, that incomparable voice; that deep baritone that takes every musical phrase seriously and glides it to its musical height. Jazz, ballads, blues, cowboy songs, hymns, show tunes – he sang practically everything, captivating his audience with those full, rich notes. They clung to every word, every syllable, as Bing invented what became the crooner. Many tried to imitate. Sinatra started out as a Bing clone.
What made me start thinking of Crosby was the programming of local radio. Several stations here in Cincinnati – as I am sure other cities have done the same thing — have begun playing Christmas music 24/7. I had the occasion to listen to a large block of that programming one night and noticed that, roughly, one out of six songs were songs by Crosby, including at least two versions of White Christmas, the aforementioned most popular song ever, with sales of over 100 million.
I thought about that. I thought about how much I like Crosby’s music and mused sadly that this is probably the only time of the year in which Crosby is played on mainstream radio. SiriusXM radio even has a channel devoted this time of year called “Bing Crosby Christmas Radio”. To be fair, you can listen to Crosby songs on Sirius’ 40’s channel and Pandora and Spotify also program Crosby music into your specific playlists.
TMC does show the occasional Crosby film, Going My Way being the most popular. Sometimes a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” picture pops up, but these are mostly dated comedies and, as much as I love Bob Hope, his humor is very topical and era-specific.
Yes, Bing Crosby has some skeletons in his closet. He could be aloof and dismissive. He probably wasn’t the greatest father to his four sons by his first marriage, but apparently redeemed himself by his second marriage, with three children.
(There’s a biography of Bing called The Hollow Man, which presents a less than flattering portrait of him. For years, during my friends and my annual White Elephant Christmas party, we gave away the same copy of this book each year to some unsuspecting recipient, who was obliged to give it away the following year.
My friend, Rick Simms, né Clem Coffee, said that if “One fifth of what was written in that book is true, Bing Crosby was the most despicable man who ever lived.” And Clem liked Bing Crosby.
A better biography is Gary Giddins’ Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940. This came out in 2001, with a promised second volume that is taking some time to see print.
So, this holiday season, when you hear Bing Crosby sing those delightful Christmas carols that can make the other ones seem lame, pause and reflect just one minute that the man you’re listening to is a superstar in the world of popular music. And if you have Pandora or Spotify, give a listen to some of his other non-holiday music. I’ll bet you’ll end up liking it and wanting more. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my vinyl copy of Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings.