Dar Williams

Promised Land

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By Mike Joyce  

End Of The Summer, by Dar Williams, was actually the start of something big for the then thirty-year-old singer-songwriter from New York. Big, vibrant and colorful, the album leaves a lasting impression. Having first made a name for herself in folk music circles as a performer with a flair for writing intimate, witty, provocative songs, Williams has managed to negotiate the transition from coffee houses to concert stages without compromising her craft or losing her core following. Indeed, she was a much-acclaimed delight on the all-women Lilith Fair tour in the late '90s. End Of The Summer affirmed her artistic growth, and her growing appeal, in a major way, with an expansive, band-driven sound that seems to orchestrate her passion, poetry and even playfulness.

Hardly what you might expect from someone who previously made her strongest statements in sparse settings, using little more than her warm and supple voice to get her message across. But then, Williams has always viewed the "folksinger" label, which has often been applied to her music in the past, as a complement, not a constraint, not unlike, say, Bob Dylan or Shawn Colvin--to cite just two "folkies" who successfully ventured into pop and rock before her. Besides, as Williams' cover of the Kinks' tune "Better Things" on Summer brilliantly attests, she's no stranger to rock, its intriguing history, or its instant gratification.

Which is perhaps one reason why Williams sounds so comfortable and convincing in this setting, collaborating with such luminaries as guitarist Bill Dillon (best known for his work with Peter Gabriel), multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (whose credits include work with Dylan and k.d. lang) and several other musicians who help create a series of richly textured and sometimes rhythmically propulsive arrangements.

Still, if the words didn't fit the music, if they seemed tacked on or, worse, insincere, Summer would have become an utter disappointment. But that's far from how things turned out. Because Williams and her colleagues never lose sight of the fact that she's first and foremost a storyteller -- with "the soul of a poet" to quote the Los Angeles Times -- her lyrics, by turns funny, poignant and pointed, are always well-served. Small wonder she sounds so engaged, and engaging.

Mike Joyce, former Managing Editor of Jazz Times, is a frequent jazz and pop music contributor to the Washington Post.