December 1999

Brooks Williams - Hundred Year Shadow
Signature Sounds SIG1248
Released: 1999

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]In Hundred Year Shadow, Brooks Williams demonstrates some talent as a songwriter, yet I find his cover of the John Lennon & Paul McCartney tune "I Will" to be the most compelling of the 11 tracks. Williams changes some of the original Beatles chords to more unusual and complex ones, giving his version a note of irony absent in the Beatles’ version. The effect is augmented by Williams’s singing at least some of the lines in a wry Elvis Costello-esque tone and by various other guitar and vocal gestures.

Another interesting cut on this CD is the Ted Hawkins song "The Good and the Bad." With a sultry rhythm strummed mostly in bluesy seventh chords, Williams performs this song in the tempo of a typical rendition of "Summertime." But instead of "Summertime and the living is easy …," this one goes, "Living is good when you have someone to live with/Laughter is bad when there’s no one there to share it with/Talking is bad if you’ve got no one to talk to/Dying is good when the one you love grows tired of you."

If that’s not perky enough for you, there’s "Kar-Kar," an instrumental tune whose name, we are told, is the nickname of Mali guitarist Boubacar Traore. If you say so.... Seriously, though, this tune spotlights Williams’ high level of proficiency on the guitar in comparison with many singer-songwriters, as well as his fine ear for subtleties. Although the piece is ultimately closer to soundtrack material than to full-fledged jazz or classical music, it is engaging and well done.

At the heart of the Williams-penned songs on this album is a quality I have also attributed to a couple of other songwriters: appealing melodies, chord progressions, and rhythms linked with heavy-but-vague lyrics. "Don’t you run away and hide/The way you always do/When that look gets in your eyes/You see a darker kind of blue," goes the refrain of the opening track, Williams’s "Darker Kind of Blue." Certainly one tends to agree: stick it out -- goo-oo-oo-ood; run away and hide -- ba-aa-aa-ad. Not necessarily a bad topic for a song. The first verse goes, "Say you want to get away/Leave it for another day?/Say your life is so unfair/Like a cross you have to bear." Vague, right? No concrete images or specific events, the cross a cliche . But the song might accomplish something if subsequent verses remedied the problem. No such luck.

The next song by Williams is the third one, "House of Truth." True, pursuit of truth is a hard row to hoe, but the song’s lines don’t get beyond that truism through specific details or original phrasing. The refrain goes, "It’s a long way, a long way,/To the house of truth." The verses consist of cliches. Yes, they represent difficult things to pursue -- "a rock that is higher than I"; "footprints left in the snow"; "most will lead you astray"; "The eye of a needle,/The wings of a dove" -- but neither separately nor together do they amount to an original or interesting thought.

"Mockingbird Hill," about returning home to a place where one is known from childhood, is Williams’s most effective song on the CD. Although it, too, suffers a bit from the vague-lyrics syndrome, it brings a few concrete details together with a fine melody and arrangement. The refrain is the excellent simile, "You’re always welcome as the flowers/On Mockingbird Hill." Among the verse lines: "Now we’re much older/The things we fought over/Don’t seem so important now" and "There’s your mother/There’s your father/Waving from the stairs." Pretty nice!

With many excellent songwriters’ work to choose from, one would hope Williams’s choices of songs to cover would all be as propitious as the above-mentioned "I Will." But they’re not. "My Love Will Follow You," by Buddy and Julie Miller and reminiscent of the Police hit "I’ll Be Watching You," and "All the Ways You Wander," by John Spillane, sound as if Williams could have written them, so similar are they to his songs.

It is hard to dislike this album, though. Williams sings and plays guitar really well and makes many careful decisions regarding arrangements. The material is far from sloppily done. I keep wanting to hear him cover some of the best songwriters.