The Album -- "Strange Paradise." Olivia Records LF921.; The Show -- At Constitution Hall, Saturday at 8.
Chris Williamson is a quote-unquote feminist singer-songwriter whose rich ballads and rock tunes are too expansive for that confining label. She's currently released through a small women's record company (Olivia); she's produced, accompanied and promoted by women; she'll likely draw a largely feminist audience at Constitution Hall this Saturday. But Williamson's point of view is strictly humanistic and her music deserves wide exposure.
Her only apparent "cause" is the pursuit of first-rate compositions with thoughtful lyrics. On her new album, "Strange Paradise," she boldly proves her ability to rock, beyond the simpler terrain of folk music.
A forceful guitarist, pianist and dramatic vocalist, she gained national attention in 1975 with her "The Changer and the Changed" LP -- one of the most successful albums ever produced by an independent label -- despite a lack of advertising or promotion budget and with minimal radio airplay. Passing up slick deals with major record companies, Williamson stuck with Olivia and is now on a low-budget, 25-city tour, her first in four years. (What's notable about this roadshow is that it's coordinated by a nonprofit group organized expressly to put women on tour.)
Williamson writes sophisticated songs of survival in the face of "twisted love" and life's harsh lessons. Her lyrics match Joni Mitchell's for insight and sensitivity; her voice is on a par with the early Judy Collins', but with an earthy rather than sweet quality. The attitude is vulnerable but winning: Whereas Joni sees a shadow and gets artistically depressed, Cris finds strength in the shadow's power.
There's no overt feminism in her themes, which range from anger to self-discovery, ultimately "getting closer to how it feels / to get closer, closer to myself." The paradise in question is the game of life: "You win and you lose, but still you choose."
On "Strange Paradise" she is equally at home on poignant ballads and strolling rock'n'roll. Her depiction of life as a "Ship of Fools" packs an emotional punch, and she sails through an upbeat, mellow performance on "Rock-and-Roll Child."
For all her small-time-record-biz back-ground, she's created a commercial mix that aims to please a wide rock spectrum. She's no sexy Maria Muldaur nor countrified Emmylou Harris. Closer to Judy, Joni and Joan Baez. At times similar to Bonnie Raitt in her blues-to-boogie feminine approach. In fact, Raitt sits in on one song, "When Anger Takes the Wheel," playing electric slide guitar and singing backup.
Longtime collaborators June Millington (producer, drummer, electric guitarist) and Jackie Robbins (bassist, cellist) deliver lush accompaniment, creating a sound that, in the end, stands apart from that of all the women artists she's been compared to. Interestingly, Williamson uses a synthesizer throughout her work, spicing her haunting melodies with space-age effects and eerie undercurrents.
Granted there are a couple of pretentious twists to the album. Half of one song is in French (flavored with Williamson's native South Dakota accent) and the liner notes impart a heavy dose of I-will-survive philosophy before each set of lyrics. But the songs themselves compensate for annoying angst in the packaging.
There's no reason Cris Williamson should be left to a cult following.