Forgotten series: Dar Williams – My Better Self (2005)

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Some people say that music and politics don’t mix. That songwriters should stay out of it. That they’re abusing their celebrity in order to push a message. That they should just shut up.

Every time you laugh just a little
Take One step closer, solving a riddle
It echoes … all over the world

Like most polarizing issues, there’s us and there’s them. We … don’t like their songs. They don’t like ours. I like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA,” but those Dixie Chicks should just move to Canada. You love the Stones’ “Sweet Neo Con” while … well, you get the idea.

Every time you open to kindness
Make one connection, used to divide us
It echoes … all over the world

Sadly, any middle ground viewpoints or alternative paradigms are lost in the dust.

Every time you choose one more morning
Goodness or meanness, life has one warning
It echoes … all over the world

Dar Williams, while her heart may not exactly be in that middle ground, has taken a less confrontational approach. You’ve been reading the lyrics to “Echoes.” It’s the heart and soul of her 2005 record My Better Self. The song (written for Dar by Jules Shear, Rob Hyman and Stewart Lerman) takes a sort of Tibetan prayer flag/all-things-interconnected look at how we might approach the problems of the world. It doesn’t point an accusing finger, it just says, “What if?” Dar was so moved by this song that she actually started Echoes Initiative, which supports community-based charities along the road of her upcoming tour.

My Better Self is a political album only in that it occasionally takes time out to look at the world from all sides. “Empire” worries about what the U.S. has become. “Beautiful Enemy” muses on what causes opposition (between people and nations) and the nature of ‘fault’ (hint: nobody’s innocent).

When world concerns are pushed aside, My Better Self winds itself around love (romantic and not) and life (the beginning and the end). The opening “Teen For God” (a long-lost companion to “The Christians & The Pagans”) is a story of an adolescent running headlong into religious paradox. “So Close To My Heart,” written for and about Dar’s child, chronicles the ebb and flow of her creative urges during her pregnancy. “Miss You Till I Meet You” (which, by the way, can make a person tear up just a little) makes you ache for a relationship that has yet to begin.

“Comfortably Numb,” covered as a duet with Ani DiFranco, gives off a strong vibe of mortality considered. “Two Sides Of The River”, on which Dar sings the blues accompanied by Soulive, uses the moving river as a metaphor for how we handle what life has to offer.

Williams uses a more full-band sound on My Better Self, making it more of a pop than folk record (in sound but not in spirit). Sonically, it’s gorgeous. Thanks to guests Marshall Crenshaw (the man on guitar … check out his work on the cover of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”), Soulive and Patty Larkin. Dar’s nuanced voice has never sounded more at home. Listen to the ethereal “Blue Light Of The Flame” to see what I mean.

When our leader gets the hungry fed food
When you just make love inside your bedroom
It echoes … all over the world

What seems like the companion piece to “Echoes” is the closing “The Hudson.” While not a political statement, it does bring up a person’s sense of community. Also resurrected is the idea of humanity’s interconnectedness. Plus, with Patty Larkin’s harmonies, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful song.

Music and politics can and do mix. The sentiments expressed on My Better Self are heartfelt and quite sincere and require no further justification. And really, I can’t put my own views out there any better than this:

Every time you love just a little
Take one step closer, solving a riddle
It echoes … all over the world

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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