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by Sheri Boggs

She's about the most engaging paradox you're likely to find. Blessed with a sweet, clear voice, a kind face and a deep respect for the folk tradition, Dar Williams can also handle her incisive quick wit like a shrimp fork while fearlessly observing the bittersweet inconsistencies of contemporary life. On her debut, The Honesty Room, and many of the albums that followed, including Mortal City, The End of Summer and The Green World, she revealed herself as an artist both intelligent and sensitive, capable of whimsy but equally as weary of b.s.

But her new release, The Beauty of the Rain, at least at the outset seems to be about transition. Williams wrote and recorded it while in the midst of moving to New York from the low-key college town of Northhampton, Mass., but she maintains that the transitions on the album are all interior ones.

"Moving to New York was a transition that I made because I was ready to be more settled, and some of the songs on this album are about people making really big decisions about their lives because they want to dig in more," she explains. "I've found that it's actually more exciting when you dig in deeper, when you invest more in your life and relationships. On the outside, it looks like 'settling down' and 'growing up,' but it's actually just the next adventure."

With more complex arrangements and the musical help of Alison Kraus, Bela Fleck and Stefan Lessard, the new album also offers a fuller sound than on her previous efforts. Williams started out on the coffee-house circuit more than a decade ago, but offers the tongue-in-cheek assessment that "it can be a little lonely sometimes being a girl with a guitar." She tells the story of a male music writer who asked her not too long ago if she was "living up to her girl-with-a-guitar image," and how she was understandably offended by the subtle sexism of the question but thought about it for days afterwards.

"If you're called a folksinger, or a girl with a guitar, it's like you're generic. People think you're going to offer something very predictable and not revelatory," she says. "So many other entities, like John Cougar Mellencamp or Blues Traveler, might have the same philosophies I do, but nobody calls them just a 'guy with a guitar.' So yeah, it sounds a little Barbie doll, a little drippy. Anemic."

Although Williams' fans are often in their late 20s, 30s and 40s, she also occasionally wins over the famously hard-to-impress Generation Y.

"I was in a restaurant with a friend and some kids came in and they were talking about me," she says. "I thought it would be really arrogant to say, 'Shut up, I wanna listen to them talk about me,' but I really wanted to hear what they were saying. What I loved is that they were calling me Dar and talking about, 'Oh, I liked when she did this,' like because they had to come to my concert and we'd been through this thing together, they really knew me. I was so thrilled by it, but of course when I got up with my friend to leave, they didn't recognize me."

Not surprisingly, Williams is drawn to ordinary, fallible people and unresolved situations. On "The Mercy of the Fallen," she sings about people who have messed up, failed, done things the hard way or nearly burned out through excess.

"I think a lot of people come to a place where you say, 'It's not moral because there's a world view of good and evil that you subscribe to, it's moral because it works,' " she says. "So in a sense, the people I'm describing in that song have fallen, but they're really unjudgmental as a result and they've gotten up and hoped to be helpful but not in a pontificating, superior sort of way."

In fact, much of the album offers the reminder that moments of respite, small bits of everyday salvation in otherwise complicated modern lives are often imbedded in the things we take for granted -- conversations with friends, the patter of rain in a city park, even a tree you see every day."

"Nature is something that can be very reassuring. It's like looking at the beauty of reality itself. You take it on its own terms, and it comes back to you," she says, adding with a laugh, "Even in the city there's always a tree outside your door that seems to be just like how your life is going."

Back to Basics -- The snarling, rapid-fire six-string downstrokes that launch "I Live Alone" from the FM Knives' Broken Rekids debut disc, Useless and Modern, is a statement of purpose amidst planned obsolescence, a declaration of existence that hints at eventual non-existence -- essentially, suburban white boy blues in 4/4 time that crackles with vitality and throbs with adrenal glands in overdrive. Yes, but it's more: an up-tempo wake-up call to all the kids out there mired in dumbed-down mall punk or the sullen, aggro muck of hardcore and metal. The FM Knives brand of punk rock is drawn from a well close to the source (think 1977, the Buzzcocks and the Undertones), where breakneck tempos and snotty-boy vocal deliveries embrace catchy melodies and disguise surprisingly deft use of language and smart, sharp lyrical hooks. Codified on record, the band sounds great. But I suspect this outfit is even more fun live. Confirm or refute this declaration this Sunday night at the B-Side when the band charges the stage with an equally entertaining Seattle band, the A-Frames.

Comprised of expatriates from various Sacramento bands (do Nar, Los Huevos, Lil' Bunnies or Karate Party ring any bells?), the FM Knives include guitarist Chris Woodhouse, drummer Ed Carroll, bassist Zack Olson and singer Jason Patrone. Now that the album has been released, they're heading out on their first transcontinental U.S. tour, looping from Portland to NYC to Reno in 20 hops. Be there when they land in the 'Kan.

Not to be outdone, the A-Frames are a loud garage punk trio that can level the joint with satisfyingly trashy rock 'n' roll informed by the early post-punk of the Stranglers, Devo and the Fall. The song titles on the S-S Records CD they sent me ("Test Tube Baby," "Transgenic" and "Plastica") really serve to fire up the ol' time machine.

-- Mike Corrigan

Feed your Heads -- Okay, I'm having a hard time figuring this one out, which, of course, is good. This band -- a duo, really -- performing at the Thin Air Community Radio benefit show at the Community Center Friday night is unlike anything on the local, regional or national radar scope. Hell, there's probably nothing in the whole freaking cosmos quite like Noggin.

Bellingham-ers Eric Ostrowski and Michael Griffen formed their electric guitar/violin combo in 1993 out of the wreckage of Weehuggum, a full band featuring both musicians. Griffen (who began his musical career in the early '50s playing in local country bands) had the band house and Ostrowski (then a Western Washington University student) stayed on to create Noggin.

Despite a three-decade difference in chronological age and a dependence on instruments often considered mutually exclusive, Griffen and Ostrowski are strangely simpatico when it comes to their bracing and challenging excursions into free noise.

This benefit show for KYRS, Spokane's only community radio station -- let's do what we can to get them on the air, people -- will also feature another Bellingham group that includes Griffen, the Artie Smudges Trio, and a local act, Chuck Ronson and His Inner City Orchestra.

-- Mike Corrigan

Publication date: 05/01/03
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