Folk singers rarely go for a "greatest hits" compilation, but not many folk singers have a catalogue as rich as Dar Williams's. On Many Great Companions, Williams showcases both her uncommon consistency as a singer-songwriter and an impressive list of collaborators. Never one to take a straightforward approach to her craft, Williams uses this anthology as an opportunity to record a new studio album, and the first disc of Many Great Companions consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of her finest songs, on which she's joined by such artists as Gary Louris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek.
The project draws parallels to Cyndi Lauper's The Body Acoustic, in that it showcases both the depth of Williams's catalogue and her skill at reinterpreting her own material. Over the course of 15 years and seven proper studio albums, Williams has built a reputation on an ear for extraordinary melodies and an effortless but still razor-sharp wit. The unadorned arrangements that Williams and producer Louris have crafted for Many Great Companions emphasize both of those aspects of Williams's writing in equal measure.
With her lilting soprano in fine form, Williams lapses into unexpected high notes in the refrain of "Spring Street," while her languid sense of phrasing lends a real sense of gravity to songs like the melancholic "I'll Miss You." But while many of her contemporaries have leaned too heavily on dour, self-serious songs, Williams has never shied away from more clever, sardonic turns of phrase. The way she takes the piss out of a pretentious ex-boyfriend on "As Cool As I Am" is as vicious in its stripped-down form here as it was a decade ago, while "The Christians and the Pagans" incorporates that winning, wry streak into an unconventional narrative in which a family finds surprising common ground over a holiday meal.
The companions of the album's title do intermittently enhance the set, with the Watkins siblings providing some of their typically deft harmony vocals alongside Carpenter and Motherlode on the exceptional "Iowa," but this is primarily Williams's show. What's most interesting about these acoustic performances is that the album plays as something of a concession to genre labels. Williams is most often considered a folk artist, even as her style has incorporated effective, slick pop elements over the course of her career. On disc one of Many Great Companions, Williams sounds more like a tried-and-true folk singer than she has at any point in her career.
That Williams pulls that style off convincingly is no great shock, given how robust her songs are and what a fine singer she is. But disc two of the set, which is a more standard anthology, brings into sharp relief how shortsighted it is to consider Williams merely a folk singer. At fully 20 songs, only five of which are repeated from the acoustic disc, the collection of original studio recordings is an embarrassment of riches. Opening with "It's Alright," the fantastic single from 2008's Promised Land, and covering such deserved favorites as "Teen for God" and "The Ocean," this best-of set serves as a fine overview of Williams's storied career. As a career retrospective, Many Fine Companions comes in two distinct flavors, which seems somehow fitting for a favorite of the coffeehouse set.