Record Roundup

 Dar Williams

Mortal City

Razor & Tie

LANGUAGE? PLEASE. OUR culture's currency is sound and fury and seven-digit celluloid images; words are quaint and depth of meaning is a bore. So what do we make of the modern folk singer, especially one like Dar Williams, who actually bills herself as a folk singer, and whose talents seem so rare and boundless? Do we wait for her to wise up and move to Nashville? Or to have a fluke pop hit, take the money & mindfuck and disappear, unable to ever go home again?

Me, I hope she keeps on making albums as empathetic and worthy of attention as Mortal City. As a follow-up to last year's wonderful above-ground debut The Honesty Room, it shows her storytelling to be maturing in all the right ways. There are fewer songs about babysitters and childhood (like "When I Was A Boy" from Room, a telling little gender-identity number that got her some radio attention), more songs about the Gordian tangle of adult relationships. And it finds her sounding more like herself and less like other artists (Joni Mitchell, Nanci Griffith) whom she evidently admires.

Williams is not a youth culture phenom on the order of Ani DiFranco--though she can boast a dedicated discussion group on the Internet (see http://www.panix.com/~tneff/dar/). More importantly, she avoids the sort of woeful, post-post adolescent "what happened to my life?" clichés that plague the genre, especially among her New England peers. It's not just because she's yet to hit 30, but because she chooses to tell complicated stories that evoke complicated emotions. Like on "The Ocean," a partial duet with John Prine where Williams does with words what the Velvet Underground did with form on a song with the same name: make you feel the thrill and terror of psychic undertow, as well as the tragic beauty of giving yourself up to it. At the song's end we get an image of a lover drunk, wading into the water with workboots still on, swearing inarticulately (but precisely) on both the trueness of love and its inability to change destiny. Like the best singer/songwriters, Williams uses language to get beyond words.

There are many more such moments on Mortal City that, life being what it is, may get missed in the rush. I first heard this record one Sunday night when, alone after a bender of a weekend, I put it on and fell back on the couch, too exhausted to move. By the time she finished the title track--a Joni-esque piano poem of two relative strangers who, in a strange moment of connection and self-preservation, wind up in bed together fully clothed--I honestly had to dry my eyes, and feel thankful she took the time to craft such finely turned tales. You only need to take the time to listen. (Will Hermes)

Dar Williams opens for Joan Baez at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium on Sunday; see A List for details.

Sunny Murray Trio

13# Steps On Glass

Enya

Aki Takase

Clapping Music

Enya

THESE DISKS DEMONSTRATE just how out-of-date drummer Sunny Murray is in the 1990s, and just how hidebound the neo-conservative movement in jazz has become. Murray's trio record is maddeningly implacable: The feathery, floating approach he pioneered while backing free-jazz dynamos like pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Albert Ayler during the '60s remains purposefully diffuse, so that the musicians comprise less of an ensemble than something like an impressionistic portrait. Whether the track is Rodgers & Hart's "Lover," Monk's "Well You Needn't," or Murray's own "Lonely Man," the drummer tap dances between cymbals, roams over the snares and tom toms, and generally implies the rhythm with the sort of understated clarity that reflects a more Eastern sense of aesthetics. Unfortunately, Murray's sidemen let him down here. The robust tenor saxophonist Odean Pope is neither brash nor fanciful enough to throw Murray's gentle mastery into relief (as Taylor and Ayler did), nor capable of dissolving the rhythm enough to join Murray in free-form synchronicity. Wayne Dockery, while possessed of a decent tone and a way with a walking bass line, seems merely along for the ride.

Murray fares much better alongside former Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman in Takase's trio. Recorded live at Berlin's A Train nightclub in 1993, the recently released Clapping Music shows Takase, a 47-year-old Osaka-born pianist, to be a near-perfect companion for Murray. On a tune like "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans," Takase shifts from grinning Dixieland inflections to enigmatic moments of wanderlust. On Monk's obscure "Oska-T," she leapfrogs through the chords like the late Don Pullen. On her own composition, "Ants," she painstakingly builds to the frantic pace of a colony packing in carrion from the earth above. These are the sort of willful moods and pulsing idiosyncrasies Murray thrives on: For the long opening of Mingus's "Boogie Stop Shuffle," while Takase's piano runs in place as if on a treadmill, Murray keeps pace with a metronome full of tiny surprises, the beats gently rising and falling with urgency, extra downbeats and paradiddles slipping in here and there without ever breaking the spellbound tension. Given this communion between pianist and drummer, Workman's fertile imagination is merely a bonus, but welcome nonetheless. Listening to Sunny Murray may not get your toes tapping the same way today's boppish youngsters do. But his rhythmic intrigue is palpable, and your feet may learn a trick or two. (Britt Robson)

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