Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

Cris Williamson

Reviewed on this page:
Cris Williamson - The Changer And The Changed - Live Dream - Strange Paradise - Lumiere - Blue Rider - Live At Carnegie Hall - Prairie Fire - Snow Angel - Wolf Moon - Country Blessed - Circle Of Friends - Postcards From Paradise - Radio Quiet - Ashes - Cris & Holly - Real Deal - Fringe - Winter Hearts - Gift Horse - Pray Tell

Cris Williamson is a 70s singer/songwriter a notch below Joni Mitchell and Carole King, half a notch above Carly Simon, Laura Nyro and James Taylor, in a general class with Janis Ian and Joan Armatrading - not as lyrically incisive as Simon, as productive as Taylor, or as stylistically expansive as Nyro, but as direct, open and catchy as any of them, and less tacky. Because of her spare piano-led arrangements, gentle ballads and easy melodicism, she's most commonly compared to King, but her country influences are stronger and more organic, she rocks harder when she's of a mind to, and her voice is less melancholy.

However, Williamson didn't get even 1% of the media attention of these other artists, mostly because she was an out lesbian before Melissa Etheridge, Phranc, or even Martina Navratilova - she was the biggest lesbian star in an era when lesbianism had zero mainstream visibility. She was the star act of "women's music" label Olivia Records (also home to Meg Christian), and her first record for the label, The Changer And The Changed, was the all-time best selling independent record from the early 70s until the early 90s - the same time period that King's Tapestry was the best selling record by a female solo artist. Still flying beneath the mainstream radar, she's held onto her audience and is still going strong, releasing perhaps her best disc yet in September of 2001.

In the 90s, Olivia abandoned music and became a cruise line (!), so Williamson started her own Wolf Moon label - you can read all about it on her web site. She's touring more regularly nowadays - I caught her in 2002 and 2005, and reviewed both shows on our concerts page. (DBW)

The Artistry Of Cris Williamson (1964)
At the age of sixteen, Williamson cut this disc of folk tunes - one take each - at the radio station in her hometown of Sheridan, Wyoming. Williamson says she sounded like an imitation Judy Collins at this stage, and there is some of that wide-eyed preciousness here (the a capella "What Have They Done To The Rain") as there was on Mitchell's debut. What's most striking, though, is how deep and rich her voice already was ("White Dove," one of two originals), and that alone makes the album worth finding. Williamson's guitar (and baritone ukelele) playing wasn't much at this stage, and there are no other musicians, so the one drawing card is her intense performances and developing sense of melody: her keening reading of "Delia's Gone" adumbrates future compositions. In those days, you couldn't get folkie credentials without covering songs from various traditions, and Williamson essayed esoterica from the Indonesian "Suliram" to a poignant "House Of The Rising Sun" to "Hangman" (also known as "Gallows Pole," this song will help you win many bar bets as to whether any song was recorded both by Williamson and by Led Zeppelin). Produced by Bill Emery, Ed Freeman, and John McWilliams. Many thanks to Sue for supplying me with a copy of these tunes! (DBW)

A Step At A Time (1965)
I guess everyone who bought Artistry bought this too: the 500-copy pressing sold out. Apparently the cover photo is literally just that: a printed photograph glued to the album cover. (DBW)

The World Around Cris Williamson (1966)
All covers this time, and rather than the ultra-authentic folk of her debut, this time Williamson's songbook drew heavily on contemporary songwriters like Phil Ochs ("Changes"), Sylvia Fricker ("Gifts Are For Giving") and inevitably Dylan (an idiosyncratic, herky-jerky "Mr. Tambourine Man"; "Daddy You've Been On My Mind"). That leaves room for just a couple of traditional numbers - "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out"; an energetic "Cocaine Blues" - and thus I find this album a bit less interesting. It's still enjoyable, though: Williamson's guitar playing is surer and better recorded, and her voice just as strong ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"). Last of the Sheridan one-take records; after one more single ("Yesterday"/"Hurry Sundown") Williamson headed off to the University of Denver and got a degree before returning to recording. (DBW)

Cris Williamson (1971)
Williamson's first album cut in an actual studio - produced by Alfred Brown for Ampex Records - is squarely rooted in the pop/folk conventions of the time: the long, churchy yet orchestrated fade of "Number One" recalls early Elton John, and the overall sound is close to Carly Simon's solo debut (both were recorded at Electric Lady by Eddie Kramer). It's enjoyable, thanks to Williamson's fine clear voice and some tasty arrangements (peekaboo strings on "Rebecca"; strong 3+3+2 percussion against pop-folk piano on "Make Me Not A Stranger") though her songwriting isn't as tuneful or pinpoint as it would later become (the gorgeous "Shine On Straight Arrow" is an exception). The large crew of musicians includes Grady Tate, Chuck Rainey, Jay Berliner, Eric Gale and many others. Olivia Records reissued this in 1981, which is the copy I have. (DBW)

The Changer and the Changed (1975)
Williamson's breakthrough, selling more than a quarter of a million copies, buoyed by her gentle melodies, unpretentious, supple voice and simple but effective evocations of woman-loving ("Sweet Woman"). Plus, she looked great in a pair of overalls. Anyway, if you're looking for a place to start with Williamson, this is surely it: "Waterfall" is her signature tune, settling and heartwarming; "Dream Child" is a straightforward, startling ode to pleasures of the flesh; "Sister" is one of those lesbian anthems it's easy to laugh at nowadays, but it's dripping with sincerity and moving if you're not overly cynical. Which goes for the entire album, actually. Aside from Williamson on piano and acoustic guitar, musicians include Jacqueline Robbins (bass), Margie Adam (keyboards), Jacqueline Furman (percussion), June Millington, formerly of Fanny (guitars on "Hurts Like The Devil"), and backup vocalists Meg Christian, Holly Near and Vicki Randle. (DBW)

Live Dream (1978)
Recorded live with a three-piece band: Williamson (keys), Millington (drums and occasional guitar), and Robbins (bass and occasional cello). But the setting doesn't seem to rouse the musicians, so the only consequences are poor sound and the odd mistake. The recording quality is particularly damaging to the sophisticated tunes like Millington's bossa nova-influenced "I Would Fly," which I'd love to hear a cleaner rendition of. The stripped-down piano tunes fare better ("Bandit Queen"), though there's about one anthemic sing-along chorus too many ("Soaring," which also borrows a hook from the Commodores' "Easy"). All the material is new (except for "Frontier," from the 1971 debut), but it's mostly tepid and toothless: "Lullabye" is pretty but insubstantial; the bouncy, old-fashioned "If I Live (I'll Be Great)") is a bit grating. And just because in the 70s everyone took a stab at reggae, there's a medley of Jimmy Cliff's "Born To Win" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want." (DBW)

Strange Paradise (1980)
A lot of powerful compositions ("Native Dancer") and more variety than usual: "When Anger Takes The Wheel" is a wonderfully funky, downtempo Southern rocker with Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar, dedicated to Lowell George; the reggae-flavored "Oh Judah" has pleasantly Eltonesque dynamics. The piano-only ballad "Marcy" is not only lovely, it shows that Williamson is virtually the only Anglophone who can sing in French without sounding precious (see Deborah Harry, Paul McCartney, David Byrne, etc.). On the downside, some of the bread and butter upbeat pop is dry ("Live Dream," not from the album of the same name), and the 50s throwback "Twisted Love" is a bore. Again the band is Williamson, Millington and Robbins; produced by Millington. (DBW)

Lumiere (1982)
I try never to assume drug use, but was Williamson stoned out of her gourd when she came up with this one? Ostensibly a children's story, but nearly impossible to follow at any age, the mostly narrated album follows futuristic boy X-Ray Ted and his dog through a rambling series of dreams where he meets numerous characters who make unconnected references to astronomic phenomena (a glossary is included). Periodically Williamson's narration is interrupted by songs, none of which appear to be closely related to the story line, and several are quite good: the title instrumental is complex and engaging; "Midnight Oil" is one of her most memorable and thoughtful love songs, with an incredible fade chorus. The arrangements are all piano-based and low-key, and the sound is gorgeous; Millington, Robbins and Tret Fure (soon to be an Olivia engineer and recording artist) add occasional bass, guitar and drums. As an album-oriented reviewer, I'm loath to suggest that you make a tape of the songs without the intervening narration, but that's what I did. (DBW)

Blue Rider (1982)
More pleasant mood music: the title track and "Surrender Dorothy" are memorable piano ballads, and "Lucille" is a bluesy stomp (again with Raitt on slide) that Williamson sings with a harder edge than I've previously heard from her. There's also a John Lennon tribute ("Night Patrol") that's striking if incomprehensible. On the down side, her lyrics are sometimes painfully contrived, particularly the forced puns of "Heart-To-Heart" and the overwrought Save The Whales piece "Leviathan." Williamson plays piano and occasional acoustic guitar; most of the guitars are handled by Fure, who also engineered and co-produced; the rest of the band includes Diane Lindsay (bass), Cam Davis (drums), and Novi Novog (viola and synth), who later appeared on Prince's mid-80s albums. Though most Olivia records were made without any male participation or interference, token Y chromosome Norman Perbil is assistant engineer here. (DBW)

Live At Carnegie Hall (Cris Williamson/Meg Christian: 1983)
Recorded for Olivia's tenth anniversary, a selection of hits by Williamson and
Meg Christian, plus a couple of covers (Brenda Russell's "So Good, So Right"). After an off-balance opener written for the occasion ("Anniversary"), each performer gets a solo set: Christian's is notable for her confident stage presence and controlled but emotional vocals ("Glad To Be A Woman"), while Williamson showcases four otherwise uncollected originals ("Come Hell Or High Water" and "Texas Ruby Red" are outstanding). The band - including Fure, Robbins, Randle, Lindsay and others - is super-professional, adding a lot to sparse tunes like Christian's "Look Within" but sounding a bit pat on numbers calling for a rougher touch (a cover of Ashford & Simpson's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). Though the two headliners clearly get along, the interplay between them doesn't add much, and all the switching back and forth between singers is distracting - I'd rather have a full live album from each of them. Apparently the CD is missing a couple of tracks from the original two-LP set, but I'm not sure which (I have the LPs). Shortly after this show, Christian became a Siddha Yoga devotee, and stopped recording anything other than chants praising Gurumayi. (DBW)

Prairie Fire (1984)
A set of intense songs about the frontier, Williamson's childhood and the dispossession of Native Americans, not necessarily in that order, and lyrically it's just about her peak. But the production is problematic, as synth starts to dominate the uptempo tunes ("Tsunami"), and even the piano ballads are overlaid with busy bass and chorused guitar. The unfortunate by-product is that Williamson's voice is often buried (title track), and nuances like the reggae beat of "Colorado Dustbowl Days" are steamrolled by the production. There are a couple of exceptions: "Suitcase Full Of Sorrow" is a tender piano-only ballad, and at the other end of the spectrum "Last Chance Saloon" is straight-up country/western with continuous steel guitar soloing and a fine demonstration of her deceptively simple stride piano style. (DBW)

Snow Angel (1985)
A holiday album, and while some of the usual suspects are here ("Three Kings Of Orient," "The Christmas Song"), Williamson doesn't wallow in nostalgic Americana: there are less-known traditional songs ("Il Es Né Le Divin Enfant"), songs by fellow writers (Carol Hall's "Hard Candy Christmas"; James Taylor's "Shower The People"), a re-recording of "Lullabye," and some new material ("Wish-Book"). Produced by Williamson and Fure, and Fure plays most of the instruments - guitars, keyboards, drum machine - and though a couple of tracks are too slick (title track), the overall feel is cozier and more intimate than the surrounding discs. Williamson sounds as warm and tasteful as ever, even when she's reading poetry (Carl Sandburg's "Star Silver"), so you can't go wrong if you want a Christmas record, but there's nothing essential here, either. Other musicians include Shelby Flint (Rhodes; she also wrote "Greetings Of The Season"), Carrie Barton (bass), Jeannette Wraite (percussion) and Novi. (DBW)

Wolf Moon (1987)
A tongue-in-cheek concept album revolving around wolves: "The Run Of The Wolf" is about Kate Wolf; "Black Fin" is about Virginia Woolf; the title track is about a woman listening to Wolfman Jack, and so on. The mood is heavily nostalgic, particularly on a couple of non-wolf cuts - a cover of the 50s hit "Come Go With Me" with a fine Novog viola solo; the Natalie Wood tribute "Goodnight, Marjorie Morningstar" - which doesn't mesh well with the mid-80s Adult Contemporary production: with lots of synths and chorused guitars, it's the slickest Williamson record I've heard, and that's not a good thing. It's a shame because the songwriting is very sharp, with thoughtful lyrics and subtle melodies (the pro-plate tectonics "Pieces Of Pangaea" - the one track that isn't nostalgic or lupine). "Black Fin," one of the few sparsely arranged cuts, is a standout, with a dramatic lead vocal. Produced by Williamson and Fure, with other players including Novog, Millington, Carrie Barton (bass), Denny Seiwell (drums) and Jerry Peterson (soprano sax). Her last solo studio album until 2001. (DBW)

Country Blessed (Cris Williamson/Teresa Trull: 1989)
An even collaboration, more or less: Trull and Williamson each get a few leads, plus co-write and co-sing the title track and "Fertanga," an ode to a horse. Trull's influence pushes the project into pure country-western in places (her "Keep On," with Nashville-style traded solos; Williamson's singalong "Calamity Jane"), while elsewhere Williamson retreats to quiet piano ballads ("Mother, Mother"). Trull has a hearty voice ("The Shady Glen") and just-folks manner; though she's rarely distinctive she's never unpleasant. The truly weird part is three sappy ballads written by Gary Marks, two sung by Williamson and one by Trull - I have nothing against guys, but after going to so much trouble to demonstrate that women could handle every part of the music business, why recruit a male to write trite garbage like "The Love We Take"? Produced and mostly arranged by Trull. (DBW)

Circle Of Friends (1991)
An unaccompanied live recording, with some hard-to-find material ("If It Weren't For The Music," the B-side of Olivia's first single, is a captivating mini-suite) and a few covers: Leonard Cohen's "Sisters Of Mercy," performed a capella; a lovingly tongue-in-cheek take on Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'"; and James Taylor's "Mill Worker." Two songs appear to be new: the pleasant but trivial "Olivia" and the sad but unsentimental "On Going." The second half of the record is a near-complete performance of Changer And The Changed, but it never feels rote because she injects humor into the performance ("Hurts Like The Devil" done with a country twang), her voice is stronger and more confident than it was in 1975, and her solo performance increases the intimacy (though there are brief guest vocals on "Shooting Star"). In fact, if the disc weren't missing "One Of The Light" and "Having Been Touched," I could recommend this over Changer. (DBW)

Postcards From Paradise (Cris Williamson/Tret Fure: 1994)
Two songs are co-written, plus five by Williamson (including the much-delayed studio version of "If I Live (I'll Be Great)") and four by Fure. The social awareness is unusually direct - the title track is Williamson's comment on the 500th anniversary of Columbus coming to the New World; her "In The Best Interest of The Children" and "Livin On" raise money for a pediatric AIDS organization, while Fure's "Something Blue" takes on gay teen suicide - but as with Wolf Moon, the production (by Williamson and Fure, engineered by Fure) is too reserved, smooth and slick. Almost everything's the same lulling tempo, with interchangeable almost-memorable sing-along choruses ("Living On," "Dreamboat"), and aside from a couple of gems like "Little World Spinning Blue" it all goes down far too easily. (DBW)

Between The Covers (Cris Williamson/Tret Fure: 1997)
Includes "Brand New Lullaby." (DBW)

Radio Quiet (Cris Williamson/Tret Fure: 1999)
Still low-key but much livelier than Postcards: the synths are gone, and Millington sisters (Jean on bass, June on frequently stinging guitar) plus drummer Leo Adamian make up a fine, flexible rhythm section. Even the mostly acoustic "On The Line," a meditation on domesticity, generates enough enthusiasm to be almost anthemic. Williamson's "The John Deere Song" is appropriately countrified with fiddle and mandolin; a long-dormant penchant for reggae is back on "Keeper Of The Light" and the title track. The oddest arranging detail is the here again, gone again Arab-influenced strings and percussion in the otherwise mellow "DelRae (Tents Of The Bedouin)." By now seven of the thirteen songs are co-written, and it's getting hard to tell one voice from the other, though most of the less interesting tunes are Fure's, aside from the fun singalong "Tomboy Girl." The lyrics avoid the explicit political themes of Postcards in favor of character sketches ("Nighthawks") or Goddess-y mysticism ("Moon Dust," "Liferaft"). Produced by Williamson, Fure and June Millington. The supporting cast includes Libby McLaren (accordion and piano), Mary Watkins (piano), Robin Flower (banjo), Nina Gerber and Erika Luckett (guitar), Michaelle Goerlitz and Janelle Burdell (percussion), and Laurie Lewis (fiddle). (DBW)

Ashes (2001)
My favorite breakup record: intelligent, heartfelt examinations of loss and transition, largely motivated by Williamson's split with Fure after about twenty years together. The lyrics are very straightforward ("Cry, Cry, Cry") but specific enough to avoid triteness; Williamson does sometimes get too cosmic for her own good ("Lucky Dog," "Dust Of Egypt"), but more often she's clear-eyed and compassionate ("Little Room"). Musically it's first-rate, as memorable melodies complement the swinging rock ("Driving Wheel"), artful country-pop ("Blue Weekend") and melancholy piano ballads ("Two Doors"), and the arrangements keep shifting - Novi Novog's striking viola flourishes on "The Crazies" - but are never showoffy or overbearing. Not only is Williamson at her best in every area, but the album's perspective, direction and coherence make it a powerful statement on a timeless theme. The core band is Nina Gerber (guitar), Benny Reitveld (bass) and Kevin Hayes (drums); there are cameos from Trull (who produced), Millington, Randle, and Raitt. (DBW)

Cris & Holly (Cris Williamson/Holly Near: 2003)
Originally undertaken to create a souvenir CD for sale at Near and Williamson's joint concerts (one of which I've reviewed), including a greatest hits medley ("Memory Lane Medley") and some very familiar material ("Mountain Song," a Near staple). But along the way they cooked up some new tunes and some new covers (Joni Mitchell's "The Tea Leaf Prophecy," with Cris doing a Joni impression just this side of parody; Jane Siberry's "Bound By The Beauty"), many of them touching directly or indirectly on the War On Terrorism (Williamson's "We The People"). Backing is stark throughout: most tracks feature just piano from Near's longtime accompanist, John Bucchino - Williamson adds piano or guitar to several more. I'm sure a Near fan would get more out of this than I do - I find her voice thin and her melodies dull - but even so, it's clearly a minor work, though Williamson's voice sounds terrific ("Azulão") and Bucchino's accompaniment is bracing (Near's "In Our Little Town"). Produced by the two principals. (DBW)

Real Deal (2005)
A small, gentle record; Gerber's acoustic guitar provides most of the underpinning, and only three cuts feature drums (the mild reggae "Footprints"). The compositions are similarly unassuming, from the eco-lament "The Waters Of Spokane" to the statement of purpose "My House Tonight"... there's nothing to complain about, but everything's so mild it's hard to get very enthused. Nonetheless, there are two classics here: the lilting love song "True Love/True Blue" and the concluding, reggaefied title track, which builds to an exciting climax. Pleasant enough, providing you're not hoping for the focus or reach of Ashes. Produced by Trull, with musicians including Randle, Lewis, Linda Tillery, keyboardist Julie Wolf and Barbara Higbie (dulcimer and fiddle on "Mercy"). (DBW)

Fringe (2007)
Like Prairie Fire, the lyrics are largely concerned with the rural West ("Alazan"), and this time the arrangements match, largely acoustic with sprinklings of dobro (Sally Van Meter), harmonica (Joel Tepp) and banjo (Woody Simmons). There are even a couple of traditional songs - "Git Along Little Dogies"; "Goodbye, Old Paint" - and covers of Judee Sill's "Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos" and Danny O'Keefe's "The Women Are Singing Tonight." Unlike Prairie Fire, though, the record lacks focus and a sense of purpose, as the story songs and images don't add up to much of anything ("Big Seed Catalog"; "Tumbleweed"). Charming and carefully crafted as it is, the album is basically gauze-filtered nostalgia, and Williamson is capable of much more than that. Most of the musicians are familiar names - Gerber, Higbie, Randle, Trull and Wolf - plus Scott Amendola (drums), Dewayne Pate and Todd Phillips (bass) and Jami Sieber (cello); produced by Williamson and Leslie Ann Jones. (DBW)

Winter Hearts (2008)
Another holiday album, a couple of decades after Snow Angel. Again it's a mix of standards ("Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas") and originals, but this time the latter far outnumber the former, and they're solid in Williamson's classic idioms: the soothing, piano-led title track celebrating the Winter Solstice; "Also, Abraham" is an elegant acoustic statement on Middle East religious clashes; the tenderly told tale "Jubilee Day." Some of the tracks are underwhelming nostalgia like much of Fringe ("Snowbound"), but at her best Williamson still has her enviable ability to reach you with simple material (the stirring lullaby "Sleep, Baby, Sleep"). Though several tracks are unaccompanied (the French folk song "Bring The Torch Jeannette, Isabella"), many feature nice touches from pianist Wolf (who brings welcome harmonic sophistication to "Good King Wencesalas"), multi-instrumentalist Jen Todd and bassist Garey Shelton. "Moonlight Ranch," a bonus track on Fringe, reappears here. (DBW)

Gift Horse (2011)
Another set just like Fringe: half the songs are traditional ("The Range Of The Buffalo"; "Old Chisholm Trail"), nearly all acoustic, and nearly all concerned with the Old West. The accompaniment is sparer than ever, with most cuts featuring only one or two other musicians (usually Higbie or Wolf, who plays accordion or melodica rather than her usual piano). None of those qualities are good or bad in themselves: at times, she seems to be aiming at easy targets with familiar melodic and harmonic material ("Long Rider"), on the quietly devastating "Wounded Knee" and the keening "Curtains Of Night" she shows that the most powerful statements aren't necessarily the grandest, and in between there are tunes which are dignified and distinctive if short on heft ("That Ten Dollars," with oboe from Nancy Rumbel). Regardless, the sharply focused subject matter and presentation make for a consistent and coherent work, beautifully sung as always, and perhaps the purest (as in most unaffected by external expectations) expression of Williamson's muse to date. (DBW)

Pray Tell (2013)
When I was growing up I always heard that singers lost their voices when they got older - I don't know if that was pure misinformation or erroneous generalization based on people who either didn't take care of themselves or didn't stay in practice. Indisputably, though, there are plenty of '60s survivors who sounds as good as ever (chain smokers not among them), and Williamson's vocal instrument is a glorious, honeyed case in point. This double CD is spiritually oriented, and whereas Winter Hearts drew from various faith traditions, these 24 originals studiously avoid religion-specific references in favor of inclusive expressions of gratitude ("Miracle"), pleas for mercy ("World Turns Tonight") and uplifting exhortations (the reggae-fied "Jai Yen-yen"). It's a tough trick to pull off, particularly across two discs, and Williamson pulls it off, mostly by relying on nature imagery ("Larks," featuring real larks) and only occasionally lapsing into cliché ("Between"). Though most tracks are midtempo and mellow, there are subtle differences, mostly due to backing players like Nancy Rumbel (oboe, English horn and ocarina), Tania Elizabeth (violin) and John Morton (Santana-esque lead guitar on "Dancing Star"), while the leader helps her own cause by adding uke and strumstick to the usual acoustic guitar and piano. Many of the songs are first-rate, from the sedate "Invocation" to the feisty eulogy "Hand On You" to the lovely "In Dreams, In Sleep" and "Carry The One." The disc may try your attention span, though, because the thematic consistency plus Williamson's love of verse-chorus-bridge structure and diatonic harmony - mostly in keys like G and D - results in a sameness diminishing the impact each tune would have on its own. (DBW)

Shine on, not-necessarily-straight arrow.

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