"My Better Self"
Razor & Tie
On her new album, "My Better Self," Dar Williams casts off the pretense that she's a folkie singer-songwriter and reveals her true identity, her better self as it were: a pop-rock singer in the mode of Linda Ronstadt, Sheryl Crow and Natalie Maines. You can call it selling out, but it's the best thing that ever happened to Williams, for her strength was never literary cleverness but rather catchy melodies that unfold into lush harmonies and big vocal climaxes.
On Jules Shear's "Echoes," she sings, "every time you love just a little . . . it echoes all over the world." The sentiment is simple, but the effect is intoxicating, thanks to Williams's lovely, open soprano and the jangly arrangement framed by Rodney Crowell's ex-guitarist Steuart Smith and the Hooters' keyboardist Rob Hyman. When she tackles Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," her hook-happy vocals blend perfectly with Marshall Crenshaw's.
Ani DiFranco helps Williams sing Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," and Soulive provides the bluesy background for a Bonnie Raitt-like vocal on Williams's own "Two Sides of the River." "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You" is a looking-for-Mr. Right song that might have been sung by the Shangri-Las, but Williams sounds as if she could been a Shangri-La herself.
Julie Wolf, DiFranco's keyboardist, plays on most of Williams's album and also on most of "Little Star," the second album by Girlyman. This Brooklyn trio of Doris Muramatsu, Ty Greenstein and Nate Borofsky has obvious pop tendencies in its seductive melodies and harmonies, but the arrangements are mostly drumless and dominated by acoustic string-band instruments, as if they were sitting around a campfire or an apartment rug. Greenstein has written evocative character portraits of a forgotten movie star, a lonely army private and a snow belt refugee, and Muramatsu displays a special voice -- lush and true but all the while hinting at doubts and regrets.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Monday at the Birchmere and Wednesday at the 8x10 in Baltimore.