Dar Williams, My Better Self (Razor & Tie, 2005)

The category of female singer-songwriters who play acoustic guitar and sing some combination of country, folk, and rock is very crowded, but Dar Williams has managed to distinguish herself over the past decade and a half with a flair for melody, a sense of humor, and strong social and political conscience. Her albums can be criticized for being predictable and formulaic, though. For better or worse, her latest effort My Better Self is largely what anybody familiar with Williams' work would expect it to be.

Over the years, Williams has written her share of songs about her past, love, and politics, and My Better Self has examples of all three. The album opens with "Teen for God", an autobiographical account of spending summers at Bible camp. In the next song, "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You," Williams addresses the ideal soul mate she hasn't met yet. On "Empire," Williams vents her anger with the Bush administration over its belligerence and its manipulation of the media and the American public. The upbeat "My Beautiful Enemy" describes a love/hate relationship on one level, but there are political undercurrents in the song as well. Williams also honors a deceased friend with "Blue Light Of The Flame," and sings "Close To My Heart" for her newborn son. "Hudson," the disc's closing track, pays tribute to the river that flows through New York City.

The original compositions on My Better Self all sound too famliar, unfortunately. I wouldn't necessarily say that Williams sounds like she's going through the motions, but she definitely seems reluctant
to break from her usual pattern. Curiously, the arrangements on My Better Self show the most life and imagination on the three songs which Williams didn't write. "Echoes," written by Jules Shear along with The Hooters' Rob Hyman and producer Stewart Lerman, is this album's most melodic and singable song. Williams duets with Marshall Crenshaw on Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," which radiates with bright energy. The most remarkable and unexpected cover, though, is Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Deliberately placed right after "Empire," Williams brings out the song's often overlooked commentary on how people build up a wall of indifference to what's going on in the world around them. Special guest Ani DiFranco provides a superb backing vocal in the chorus as well.

My Better Self is not really weaker than Dar Williams' previous efforts. It just generally fails to distinguish itself from what Williams has done before, with the only flashes of genuine inspiration coming from the selection and performance of the cover songs. Still, long-time fans of Dar Williams who want more of the same will be happy with the new record, and people curious to hear one of contemporary folk's better performers will find this an acceptable introduction.

Overall grade: B-

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2006 The Green Man Review

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