Dar Williams - Out There Live (2001)

East Central One RTIECD002

Dar Williams writes incredibly good songs but on her last 2 albums arrangements have shifted from her stripped down beginnings towards a more layered sound & the sheen of pop production dangerously close to that stereotypical 'safe' female singer-songwriters’ band sound. While this is a valid approach it can, at times, be slightly stifling for an original voice such as Dar’s.

It’s refreshing therefore to hear her with a sympathetic live band & less wrapping around the articulate core of the songs. Here Dar’s voice & acoustic guitar are very much centre stage benefiting from being more imperfect & ‘human’ than on some of the recorded versions.

The band’s performances are often harder rocking than the studio arrangements (‘As Cool as I Am’, ‘Are You Out There’) managing throughout not to swamp Williams’ seemingly effortless gestalt of words, melodies & deceptively simple guitar, allowing the songs to breathe. Particular mention must go to the non-intrusive keyboards of Jeff Kazee; accordion & especially tasteful hammond organ.

Material drawn from across Dar’s 4 albums showcases her in various personas from confessional (“When I was a Boy”, “What Do You Hear In These Sounds”), to pop diva (“Better Things”), witty raconteur & keen observer (“I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono”, “The Christians & The Pagans”). She even manages self parody at the slightly mawkish spoken section of “The Babysitter’s Here”.

Production is excellent although the crowd noise, mostly highly vocal adoring women, is mixed a little high. This is a highly accomplished & listenable live album with the rare bonus that some songs fare better than the studio recordings & would make a perfect introduction for the Dar Williams virgin.

September 2001.

Kate Rusby - Little Lights (2001)

Pure Records PRCD07

Reticent as I am to pepper a review with superlatives for fear of 'Hello Magazine' like accusations, this album truly deserves them like few others.

On this her third solo project proper, Rusby demonstrates a profound understanding of English Folk song. Her own songwriting also seems to have reached full maturity with this listener being hard pressed to tell between the traditional songs, heavily rearranged trad. material & originals without reference to the sleeve.

The recording is heavily laden with emotion, when she sings Richard Thompson's 'Withered & Died' or her new melody for 'Playing of Ball' you feel a genuine aching in her voice. Other tracks are notable for their sheer joyousness including the Rusby original 'I Courted a Sailor' at the end of which guitarist Ian Carr launches into a jazz inspired chordal frenzy in one of the album's many hints & inflections from other musical styles.

The quality of musicianship is exemplary with performances devoid of ego or unnecessary flash. The team assembled includes Michael McGoldrick on whistles throughout & folk-rock stalwart, upright bassist Danny Thompson on one track. Eddie Reader provides a sublime harmony foil to Rusby's voice on 3 tracks.

Special mention must be made of the arrangement courtesy of Rusby & partner John McCusker. The 'spaces' & decisions to reign back on instrumentation allow the recording to breathe, the performances to shine & the full emotional impact of the songs to be felt. When members of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band finally join the unaccompanied lamenting voice of Rusby as her Grandmother nursing her emphysemic miner husband on 'My Young Man' the effect is electrifying!

It's a beautiful sounding recording. Producer McCusker captures a smooth sound yet manages to retain the organic feel of acoustic instruments & the, now highly developed, subtle expressiveness of Rusby's thick, silken voice.

A rare & welcome island in a sea of anodyne pap.

May 2001