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Williams takes a harder road to the 'Promised Land'

| Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008

The cover of Dar Williams new CD, "Promised Land," shows the singer holding a withered plant that looks to be on death's doorstep.

"It's a little bleak," says Williams, who performs Monday at Club Cafe, South Side. "I call it the creepy tree. But that's always been the premise of the album. It's the 'Promised Land,' but it's up to us. We could use some water. We could use some solar panels."

Williams says there was a notion to digitally add a few leaves onto the plant, but she was afraid that it would detract from the image's precariousness. But "Promised Land," is not a desperate, hopeless work. Instead, it is, at times, resoundingly optimistic, even joyous in its celebration of life.

Nor is it a myopic work, and again the cover is instructive. Williams image is blurred. If not for her name in the upper right hand corner, it could be anyone holding the plant -- and the planet.

"It's about us," she says, "not so much about me."

What's especially notable is that Williams, who comes from the singer-songwriter camp, features a few songs -- "It's Alright" and "Go to the Woods" -- that have a rollicking, uptempo feel and are close to honest-to-goodness rock 'n' roll tunes. The idea was to pay homage to Elvis Costello, the Police and the Pretenders -- musicians who inspired Williams -- while remaining true to her fan base.

Williams credits much of the sound to drummer Travis McNabb of the New Orleans-based band Better Than Ezra. McNabb, who was brought in by producer Brad Wood (whose credits include production work for Liz Phair and Pete Yorn) to strike the right balance between Williams' past work and the new songs.

"He's a drummer who really hits hard," Williams says of McNabb. "But also there's swing and there's give, there's bounce in what he does. That is the hallmark of New Orleans beat. He hit as hard as a rocker, but it's a little bit more lyrical, what he did. That's why a lot of people, I think, are saying 'It sounds like you, but hits a little harder.' "

In recent years, Williams has branched off into children's literature, writing two books, "Amalee" and "Lights, Camera, Amalee." One lesson she's learned is how hard songwriting is in comparison to other forms. With books, she says, you "show up feeling any number of things, and you can put those things into the story. Somehow the characters pick up on whatever your feelings."

Songs, on the other hand, require a patience that requires divine intervention.

"It's waiting for God to tap you on the shoulder," she says "And it's worth the wait. It's worth putting yourself in a position where you're constantly creating a space for that kind of creative experience to come in."

For Williams, that means going to museums and art galleries, taking long walks, and waiting for the song to emerge from contemplation of nature and art. While that happens of its own accord, Williams still has a goal that goes beyond mere songcraft.

"With every album, my joke is that I wish I could make music people could vacuum to," she says. "That holds musically as well as lyrically. I love melody, I love pop music, and I love the Beatles. Their arrangements were beautiful, but it was just pure melody. My hope is always to make an album where, if you need the words, they are there for you; if you don't, it's music."

Additional Information:

Dar Williams

With: Shawn Mullins

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Admission: $35

Where: Club Cafe, South Side

Details: 412-431-4950, or online

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