In a recent online poll of folk music fans' favorite record of all time, Joni Mitchell's Blue came in second. It was tied with Dar Williams' sophomore album, 1996's Mortal City; her 1994 debut, The Honesty Room, came in first. Granted, music polls on the Web have about as much integrity as a Chicago election, but you have to admire any artist who's inspiring that kind of ballot-stuffing. Williams, a 31-year-old Massachusetts folkie, is earning her cult by pulling off a tough trick: reinvigorating the genre's most shopworn themes by removing the self-congratulatory gushing and in the process making them sound new and accessible. Her chosen subjects are staples of open-mike-night hell -- nuclear power, ex-boyfriends, gentrification -- but as she proved at the Palace of Fine Arts, she's not just skimming the Utne Reader for lyrics. Spinning Socratic dialogues about her personal place in the midst of public traumas, she transcends tired folk singer ideas.
Armed with her acoustic guitar and a strong four-piece band (particularly the exquisite cellist Stephanie Winters), Williams' songs worked live in part because she brought a smart pop edge to them: "Are You Out There" and "What Do You Hear in These Sounds" -- tunes about public radio and therapy -- were surprisingly affecting. She's an excellent storyteller as well, within both between-song chatter and her songs' tight narratives; "Mortal City," about a first date in the middle of a power outage, sustains itself over seven minutes thanks to her sweet, high voice and her sharp phrasing, hitting the right plot points precisely. But the main thing is that she sounds like she means it, every last word, and while as a lyricist she's occasionally drawn to simple romanticism (the final-encore "February"), she's more often teasing out the exact moments where her characters' emotions reveal themselves. On the upbeat "As Cool as I Am," the Sensitive New Age Guy gets his comeuppance: "[Y]ou shake your head and say low/ 'If I could believe that stuff, I'd say that woman has a halo,'/ And I look out and say, 'Yeah, she's really blond.' "
Ron Sexsmith, the Canadian pop-folkie who opened, sang about a blonde as well: "Strawberry Blonde," a troubled girl the narrator knew as a child, and then, years later, sees on a streetcar with her own little girl. The melody was pretty, but the story was uninvolving, and Sexsmith gave us no reason to care. By the grace of producer Mitchell Froom, Sexsmith has devised a likable sort of Brian Wilson-falsetto-pop-with-guitar attack over two albums, but his approach is so whispery, his finger-picking style so tentative, his lyrics so cliched, that even a good song like "Secret Heart" becomes inconsequential in his hands. Rod Stewart, he told the audience, plans to cover the tune, and Stewart certainly knows inconsequential.
-- Mark Athitakis
Moment of Truth
For all of the prattle about "keeping it real," hip hop is full of fakes. There are many 'hoodcentric rappers who live comfortable suburban lives, several chroniclers of urban violence who grew up in rural areas, and at least one notable champion of wanton lust who is a monogamously devoted family man. Well-crafted caricature can get you far in the rap game, but when it comes to career longevity, men whose personalities vary little with or without a microphone seem to do best. LL Cool J really is the laid-back fun-loving guy; the members of A Tribe Called Quest really are soft-spoken, somewhat scholarly young men; and Guru and Premier, the duo known as Gang Starr, really are urbane inner-city residents. Consequently each of these acts has retained street cred despite getting older. Gang Starr are particularly indicative of this trend; their new record, Moment of Truth, is their best, and it follows four successively better recordings in their nine years. That's a unique career trajectory for any performer in popular music, but especially in hip hop, where most acts run out of good ideas after one or two albums.
Guru and Premier first worked together in 1989 on a single, "Manifest," which became a minor hip-hop classic, in part for sampling a jazz riff, specifically Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." On their debut No More Mr. Nice Guy, they recorded the single "Jazz Music," a well-intentioned march through the music's glorious history; the song caught Spike Lee's ear and it was used over the closing credits of his Mo' Better Blues. Although they were in front of the jazz/hip-hop fusion trend, their next album, Step Into the Arena, employed a broader array of samples and Guru began to settle into the gritty low-key delivery that he still uses. Daily Operation in 1992 and 1994's Hard to Earn honed their style. Premier went from recognizable samples to creating collages that truly reflected the rhythms and atmosphere of Brooklyn streets. Guru's raps came to sound like a street philosopher's monologue. While working on Hard to Earn, both men began pursuing other projects. Guru developed Jazzmatazz, a hip-hop/jazz fusion venture that resulted in two very good recordings. Premier also went toward jazz, working with Branford Marsalis on his Buckshot Lefonque project as well as becoming a leading producer of top East Coast rappers like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., and Jeru the Damaja.
Moment of Truth reflects an even greater musical sophistication. Premier's backdrops retain their street flavor but now feature infectiously melodic guitar or keyboard lines (perhaps a side effect of working with virtuosic improvisers). Guru lingers behind the beat more often and creates verse in odd meters. While most hip hop can't wait to get in your face, Gang Starr's music lets you come to it. Many guests fit right in: K-Ci and Jojo sing on "Royalty"; Wu-Tang's Inspectah Deck raps on "Above the Clouds"; and Scarface raps on "Betrayal," perhaps the most compelling story on the recording. The disc's principal weakness is a lack of topical range, which makes its 78 minutes drag on at times. However, it is hard not to share the duo's glee about their success. In "Work," there are several spoken-word samples asking about their career intentions; the song is their response. Guru and Premier have created a style that isn't dependent on youthful insolence or rebellion. Both are in their 30s and likely to be doing this well into their 40s.
-- Martin Johnson
The Ponzi Scheme
The hyperbole conspiring to label former Cop Shoot Cop bassist/vocalist Tod Ashley's new outfit Firewater a radical departure is a little overstated. The group's reported penchant for Eastern European folk music -- particularly the manic melodic frenzy of klezmer and polka -- funneled into Tod Ashley's threadbare grit makes for a good story. But the abandonment of Cop Shoot Cop's abrasive New York noise-coterie dual bass-and-sampler antics is not entirely as outre as Firewater would have us think.
The Ponzi Scheme is more accurately a fairly enjoyable take on traditional American rock flourished with brass, strings, and folk instruments rather than a daring leap from the indie-rock secret society. Firewater's debut, Get Off the Cross, We Need the Wood for the Fire, included a host of fellow conspirators, including Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and drummer Jim Kimball, Hahn Rowe of Foetus/Hugo Largo fame, and Yuval Gabay from Soul Coughing. Of these, only Rowe, playing violin, appears on The Ponzi Scheme. In place of the rest is a new cast of unknown, but equally talented, performers.
Launching invective like a lone gunman, The Ponzi Scheme begins with an instrumental flurry of spy-movie saxophone and piano-driven Mancinified sonics. Following this brief introductory tune, "Green Light" sets the undercurrent for the album's dressed-up rock songs. As a kettledrum, chimes, and a tremolo-soaked guitar interconnect, Ashley spins a bitter diatribe against America's patient wait for apocalypse.
His lyrics mold wry references into screeds -- sort of like Dennis Miller gone punk -- but they effectively support his clever sense of irony. "Dropping Like Flies" retains the ominous aggression of Cop Shoot Cop more than it bears any relation to klezmer or Eastern European traditions. "Caroline" slips into a silken ballad replete with morose "Eleanor Rigby" cello and violin.
Amid the multiple pop songs, only the klezmer bop "El Borracho" reflects the group's reported Gypsy music slant. Then it's back to "Drunkard's Lament," which closes the album with weepy violin and shivering mandolin and the sing-along crescendo, "Misery loves company/ That's why everyone loves me." That song's narrator is a bit delusional, but maybe it's appropriate: So is anyone who thinks that The Ponzi Scheme is some kind of radical departure.
-- Dave Clifford