Salt by John R. Williamson (Review)

Expect great things from Williamson in the future, and the future is now.
Salt - John R Williamson

Quite frankly, the problem with singer/songwriters is that there are far too many of them. It seems as though virtually every person who has ever picked up an acoustic guitar has, at some time or another, fancied themselves something of a songwriter. And in far too many cases, some well-intentioned person meaning only to offer a bit of support and/or ego-stroking has apparently cemented this idea in their minds with their mild showing of interest. The end result of all of this is that there are far, far, far too many folk‚ or singer/songwriter albums filled with simplistic playing, horrible production values, and banal, cliched lyrics.

Yes, there are lots of bad rock bands too, but there are less of them due to the simple economics of recording a single person versus recording a full band. Not to mention the simple fact that in a band setting, someone is far more likely to pull the songwriter aside and let them in on the fact that their songs just aren’t all that good.

So why has the singer/songwriter genre continued, even flourished, for so long? Quite simply because when you get a good one it’s something special to behold, which brings us — finally — to John R. Williamson and his sophomore CD release, Salt. A veteran of the West Coast scene, Williamson has spent years honing his craft, and it shows. After several cassette-only releases filled with his deftly literate, generally understated work and having some of his songs crop up on other west coasters’ albums, Williamson finally bit the financial bullet in 1999 self producing and releasing Songs From The Crescent Vale, his debut CD.

Not only did Songs From The Crescent Vale produce a solid critical buzz for Williamson, but a chance encounter with uber-producer T-Bone Burnett had the music legend declaring Williamson one of the very best songwriters he’d ever come across. This is high praise coming from a man who has worked with everyone from Bruce Cockburn to Gillian Welch to Joseph Arthur to The Wallflowers to Joe Henry to Sam Phillips to, well, pretty much anyone of any importance making acoustic-based music today.

Burnett matched his praise with actions, immediately bringing Williamson into the studio to begin working on a new record to be released on Burnett’s own still-to-be-launched label. While waiting for that record to make it’s way through the legal quagmire that is major label politics, Williamson returned to the studio to complete his second independent effort with the end result of these sessions being Salt.

Make no mistake, though. Salt is no stop gap effort, there’s not a single throwaway track here. Every piece is a carefully crafted, highly articulate piece of work. Williamson’s backing band — the C’est La Vie’s — are a diverse and talented bunch moving easily through different moods and textures while Williamson himself is one of the most highly literate and concise songwriters you’re likely to come across.

Salt tends to be slightly more down-tempo and understated than its predecessor, the chaotic wail of “Just Another Truckstop”‚ notwithstanding, with Williamson most often opting for the subtle approach in phrasing and delivery. You can hear a touch of Dylan’s early electric phase in the production values. And fans of Robert Deeble may recognize Williamson’s approach to writing, though the two are longstanding friends, appearing on each other’s records (Williamson even wrote a track for Deeble’s debut).

Williamson has settled nicely into his own voice, making obvious comparisons pretty much non-existent, which in itself is one of the highest compliments that can be offered. Expect great things from Williamson in the future, and the future is now.

Written by Chris Brown.