by Bruce Sylvester
JOY WILLIAMS: Venus (Sensibility/Columbia)
ANGELA EASTERLING: Common Law Wife (De l’Est)
Joy Williams and Angela Easterling are both strong writers whose voices can sound angelic. Williams (now solo again after her duo the Civil Wars’ abrupt breakup) won four Grammies with the twosome. On the other hand, Easterling is nowhere near as well known as she deserves. As for their writing, Easterling’s songs’ plots are specific, while Williams looks at matters of her heart.
As a singer, Williams can move from a pure, breathless soprano one one track to a full-bodied contralto on another. With several producers and co-writers on Venus, her textures and tempos are ever shifting. The opener, “Before I Sleep,” is almost classical/goth, while “Woman (Oh Mama)” approaches an African vibe.
She’s singing amid the ashes of devastating losses (“We grow stronger for breaking apart.”). The Civil Wars’ end could be the seeds of several songs, especially “One Day I Will” and bitter “What a Good Woman Does” (“I can’t carry the weight of this war.”). “The Dying Kind” (“Every rose has its thorn. Every thorn has its crown. We’re all the dying kind.”) may be an elegy to her father, whose death came at about the same time as her duo’s demise. A broken heart opens the album, but the song cycle ends in soothing comfort with her vocal caresses on “Welcome Home.”
Easterling, in contrast, can be political, personal or simultaneously both, serving up humor as well as grim horror. Common Law Wife’s autobiographical title track fits the CD’s cover photo. Is she in a wedding gown and holding a bouquet of flowers? Well, no. She’s wearing her grandmother’s slip while standing by a swamp on family land, and the bouquet was created from burlap.
The gorgeous opening track, “Hammer,” was inspired by Pete Seeger and her grandfather, who built the house she lives in on a farm that her family has owned since 1791. Written in a Bruce Springsteen/Steve Earle vein, “Throwing Strikes” (in the voice of a failed baseball pitcher who returns to a town on its way down) ends in emotional release reminiscent of a scene in Depression-Era Bonnie and Clyde.
Her voice can be angelic when a song’s story line isn’t at all. Intense “Arkansas Murder Ballad” calls to mind Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Caleb Meyer.” Based on an actual event, “Isaac Woodard’s Eyes” is the appalling tale of a black World War II vet’s return to his (and her) native South Carolina. She’s confronted horrors of her homeland’s past before. Based on a photo a friend found when sorting through her own deceased father’s miscellanea, Easterling’s earlier “The Picture” may be the most devastating song I’ve ever heard on race relations. It’s on her 2009 CD Blacktop Road, whose arrangements are less folk/country rootsy than Common Law Wife’s.
Of course, for balance, there’s fun on the disc. Take “Table Rock,” which begins when she finds a pair of jeans from her youth. Happily surprised that they still fit, she urges her long-time man to take her dancing in them. She wishes she could have known him way back when she got the jeans, but realistically admits, “I was about half-crazy when I was young. If I’d met you then, I’d have made you run.”
Someone should recommend Easterling’s CDs to Mr. Earle the Elder.