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Holding Up Mirrors (01/19/2001) Write to CD Shakedown
Dar WilliamsDar Williams, The Green World (Razor & Tie 2000) - Be careful with this one. If you rush by (as I nearly did), you will miss an album that shimmers with subtly and beauty. Like Sam Phillips and Suzanne Vega, Dar Williams balances sharp songwriting against equally sharp pop sensibilities to produce an album that is a rewarding whole.

Dar WilliamsAny label that is the home to Canadian roots-rocker Fred Eaglesmith can't be all bad, so you know that Dar Williams comes with credentials. And "What Do You Love More Than Love" is an instantly likeable pop track, with thinking woman's lyrics. Says Ms. Williams, "I don't know if this album is poppy to me. It's more theatrical, and of course, we have more money as we go along, so there is more instrumentation."

Now on her fourth release, Ms. Williams explains that "I'm just holding up mirrors at interesting places. I'm trying to capture life at strange angles." A graduate of Wesleyan University, Ms. Williams launched her music career on the Boston/Cambridge coffee house folk circuit. Adds the singer, "60s folk music was my original muse and the folk audience - people who listen to music off the beaten track - fostered my career."

Dar WilliamsThe Green World finds Ms. Williams working with a polished band that includes Steuart Smith (who has worked with Shawn Colvin and Roseanne Cash) on guitars, keyboards and accordion, Rob Hyman (who has worked with Joan Osborne and The Hooters) on keyboards, bass player extraordinaire Graham Maby (whose career includes a long stint with Joe Jackson, as well as more recent work with Natalie Merchant), and Steve Holley (who has worked with Paul McCartney and Joe Cocker) on drums.

The album was recorded primarily in Woodstock, New York, with producer Stewart Lerman. Says the singer, "I am so grateful to Stewart. He got the right musicians and guided the sessions. While all the songs are thematically unified, they have their own voices. Stewart was able to approach each song like an individual short story that took on its own life."

Dar WilliamsNow age 33, Ms. Williams (who took a degree in religion) finds herself investing in deeper topics. For example, she says the album title The Green World comes from a Shakespearean theme developed by literally critic Northrop Frye.

If all you look for are the bright lights, you'll miss the understated "After All," a lovely gem of a song in which the singer invites you to "Go ahead/Press your luck/Find out how much love/The world can hold."

Dar WilliamsMs. Williams is looking for deeper meaning. For example, "What Do You Love More Than Love?" was inspired by a trip to the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, east of Nepal. Recalls Dar, "As I was spinning the prayer wheels and visiting ancient temples, I asked myself a lot of questions about how to love without needed to be loved so much."

Another headturner is "Another Mystery," with its jangly guitars and backing banjo. Also listen for "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono," with its effortless sound.

Yet I find myself playing "After All" again and again. Ms. Williams explains that she "wrote about the hinge in my life between depression and sanity, and where things went from there." That's a deep topic, and one rarely explored with as much grace as on The Green World.

NieldsThe Nields, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now (Zöe 2000) - The Nields, consisting of two sisters and three Daves, have a sound that is refreshingly unique. Tagged by some as "Alt-folk," the Massachusetts-based combo has been winning fans with its steady studio output and frequent touring.

The Nields consist of singing sisters Nerissa and Katryna Nields, David Nields (Nerissa's husband) on guitar, drummer Dave Hower, and bass player Dave Chalfant. Since 1994, the combo has been averaging an album a year. The album opens with the bouncy "Jeremy Newborn Street," and includes "Keys to the Kingdom," a folk-based foot-stomper.

NieldsOn If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, the group expands its sonic pallet with such instruments as piano, trumpet, oboe, tuba, fiddle, and cello. The Nields' strongest point is the delicious blending of the voices of Nerissa and Katryna on such charming duet ballads as "100 Names" and "I Still Believe in My Friends."

The Nields are no newbies, as they experienced the bittersweet effect of having their label (Guardian Records) fold in 1996 after they had an album in the can. Says Nerissa, "You can be hustling and schmoozing your ass off, and not get anywhere, trying for that 'lucky break.' We decided what we could do is to focus on what we do, which is perform and write."

Nerissa NieldsNerissa adds, "We are no longer obsessed with becoming the next Fleetwood Mac or the next Beatles because we are the next Nields. That is what we have realized. We're already there. We don't need to be some other hugely-famous band. We're us, and we enough."

That grounding serves the Nields well. The band has an ever-shifting sound, from the steady rock beat of "Jack the Giant Killer" to the feedback-filled "Forever" (with vocals by Dave Nields) to the band's signature folk-based sound. Like so many CDs, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now runs on the long side - the album would not suffer if it were trimmed by 15 minutes.

NieldsIn discussing their songwriting style, Nerissa says, "Both David and I as songwriters have a certain amount of smirkiness. I think on this record, we expose a little bit more of the heart . . . A lot of people say to us they came in depressed and left full of joy and hope. And there's really nothing better than that."

The Nields work comfortably in territory established by the Roches and the recent 10,000 Maniacs. Try something offbeat with If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now.

Austin PowersOriginal Scores to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery & The Spy Who Shagged Me (RCA Victor 2000) - A good soundtrack should evoke memories of the film.

And Austin Powers succeeds in spades. Fans of the two hit movies, International Man of Mystery and The Spy Who Shagged Me, will instantly recall the films on such songs as "Danger March," "Felicity's Theme," and "Swinger Landing."

George S. ClintonThe soundtrack (which moves in a breezy fashion) is the product of composer George S. Clinton, who also produced the soundtrack to the film, The Astronaut's Wife, and the Showtime anthology, Red Shoe Diaries.

By working with an orchestra and such instrumentation as bongos, jazzs saxophones and a swinging rhythm section, Clinton's score draws from such predecessors as the James Bond scores by John Barry, Burt Bacharach's soundtrack to Casino Royale, and Henry Mancini's jazzy, Pink Panther scores.

Austin PowersBoth Austin Powers movies open with a setting of Quincy Jones' "Soul Bossa Nova," a quirky, horn-based track that sets the tone for the Austin Powers character.

The Austin Powers soundtrack carries its own weight. Fans of the movie will have fun with this eccentric set.

- Randy Krbechek © 2001

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