These smart lyrics have unique flair

Album: If you listen to Dar Williams' new CD and find yourself engaged in the words, well, that's the point.

September 20, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Dar Williams admits that her current album, `This Green World," is a bit of a throwback.

It isn't like contemporary pop albums, beat-driven and focused on fluffy, accessible singles. Nor is it the kind of thing we've come to expect from contemporary singer/songwriters, which emphasize acoustic instruments and deliberately stripped-down production.

No, it's smart, song-focused and well-produced - just like albums used to be during the heyday of the singer/songwriter movement, when Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne were at the top of the charts. As it turns out, that's precisely the sort of album Williams wanted to make.

"When we started out, we were aspiring to make an album the way they did in the '70s," she says, over the phone from a tour stop in Providence, R.I. "We wanted a whole album that thematically is loosely united, and where each song is treated like a different story with different musical environments, but which hangs together as a piece."

She chuckles lightly and adds: "We were sort of going on the model of a Cat Stevens album. I'm a little hesitant to say so, because I don't know if that's exactly what we achieved. But that was a common aspiration at that point, to make an album that reflected all the different parts of a musician's personality. It was very fun."

As a songwriter, Williams is known for her intelligence and ambition. But as proud as she is of the material she's written, she also wanted to ensure that her recordings worked as albums, not simply as a collection of songs. She also liked the idea of "just having fun in the studio" and making the most of each arrangement.

With "This Green World," Williams is not only working with her band - a five piece ensemble that includes such high-profile players as guitarist Steuart Smith - but with such ace studio help as keyboard player Rob Hyman (who recorded on Cyndi Lauper's debut and Joan Osborne's "Relish") and cellist Jane Scarpantoni (who has recorded with R.E.M. and the Psychedelic Furs). So the songs take on a level of instrumental polish well beyond what's heard on the coffeehouse level.

Oddly enough, that attention to detail has left some listeners slightly perplexed.

"A lot of people are saying, `Oh, we thought you were a singer/songwriter, but since it's produced this way, I guess you're pop now,' " she says, obviously amused by the misconception. "But what if you are a singer/songwriter who wants to really get into some production elements and have some fun? What do you call yourself?"

Williams points out the songs on the album are "lyric-driven, with unusual subject matter," and she's right. There aren't many albums with songs that celebrate the faith and persistence of the Berrigan brothers, or which feature a protagonist who insists "I won't be your Yoko Ono if you're not good enough for me." These songs are meant for listening, not just an hour's worth of aural wallpaper.

Also, the music is tuneful and inviting, conveying a genuine melodic flair and pop sensibility.

"I was kind of hoping these songs would be easy to listen to, but there would also be layers there," Williams says. She hoped they would be "something you could listen to in the background while you're cleaning house, or sit down and really listen to.

She's not worried about being heard. "My experience is that I have no lack of audience," she says.

"Obviously, there are people who can relate to what I do. Then there's something that I call the myth of the folk audience. I don't know that there's one audience that goes to hear folk music. I think they're people looking for music that's not singles-oriented or commerce-oriented, and yet not traditional folk or pop, but more lyric-driven.

And while some will look for an appropriate label for such music, Williams simply shrugs. "It doesn't really bother me what they call it," she says. "I'm working, so I'm cool."

Dar Williams

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College

Tickets: $24

Call: 410-481-7328

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