Dar Williams,
End of the Summer
(Razor and Tie, 1997)

Bob Dylan's fans booed and said they felt betrayed when their hero decided to go electric. How did Dar Williams' fans react when she decided to cut loose and rock on her third full-length compact disc (and yet another one recorded in her bedroom), 1997's End of the Summer? "The drum kit sounded fake" was the only criticism on a Dar-specific Internet e-list.

Well, if you can see past that, and it's extremely easy to do so, you'll love Dar's entrance into rock 'n' roll -- that is, Dar-style rock 'n' roll. While the music rocks (accompanied by electric guitar, dobro, pedal steel and cello, among other instruments, and backed by vocalists such as Richard Shindell, Dee Carstensen, and Nerissa and Katryna Nields), the lyrics, with the exception of one cover (Ray Davies' "Better Days"), are penned by the woman about whom the Washington Post declared: "Few of her peers write with so much wit, warmth, and yes, honesty." Dar's lyrics are filled with so much metaphor and rich imagery that even her more humorous and/or rock-oriented pieces become poignant. Her meaningful images remain in your mind long after the songs end.

A case in point is "What Do You Hear in These Sounds," also known as "The Therapy Song." Admittedly Dar's most autobiographical song recorded to date, she starts by making you laugh: "I don't go to therapy to find out if I'm a freak, / I go and I find the one and only answer every week." However, by the time she's reflected more on the subject and has compared her realizations in therapy to East Berliners before and after the Wall's fall, you're smiling not out of laughter but empathy.

Dar's music resonates with both adults and adolescents, and her admiration of the younger generation is seen in "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts." The comma in the song's title is important; it makes the sentence a command. Dar wants teenagers not only to kick the adults' butts but also to remember, long after they are adults, what it was like to be an adolescent. "Are You Out There," a song about teenage alienation, particularly in suburbia, contains the wonderful irony with which baby boomers' children may indeed identify: "Our parents do more drugs than we do." Teenagers should definitely giving a knowing nod when hearing the following lines from the song's teenage narrator: "They preach that I should save the world, / They pray that I won't do a better job of it."

While Dar's passionate soprano fits her rock sound, she returns to her folkie singer-songwriter roots in her anti-Wal-Mart song, "Bought and Sold." Her heroes are the people whose "paychecks don't have lots of zeros" and refuse to be the "super shoppers." "Road Buddy," also featured on the soundtrack of Smoke Signals, tells what it's really like to be on the road: "This is not a romance with the road."

Other softer, pensive songs include the title track (inspired, she has said, by the realization that she never has to return to school ever again), which focuses on how the world seems different at the end of the summer. It's the time "when you hang your flowers up to dry," "when you send your children to the moon," and "you can spin the light to gold." "It's a War in There," partially inspired by Joan Baez (Dar toured North America and Europe with Baez), concerns wars of all sorts, including the ones inside.

But no matter what Dar discusses in her songs, whether she's tackling the issues in a serious or humorous way, "Better Days," the final track, reassures us that yes, there will be good days ahead, and Dar will be there in them with us.

Whether she's accompanied only by herself on acoustic guitar or by a full electric band, Dar Williams' music is thought-provoking. The CD's cover shot, Dar standing in the woods with dirt on her hands, was meant to show her looking contemplative. And indeed, her music makes you think in a way that very few singer-songwriters can achieve. Hers is not the music of complacency.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]



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