Anne Hills

Points of View

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"Since my last CD of original songs," writes Anne Hills, referring to 1998's Bittersweet Street, "I earned my masters in Social Work." The effect of that degree turns up in her writing, at least in the more socially conscious efforts, such as the lead-off track, "I Am You," a celebration of American multiculturalism and immigration; "The Farm," which is about losing one (or, more specifically, about the devastating psychological impact on the male farmer of that loss); and "I'm Nobody," sung in the voice of a generalized poor and powerless person. But listening to the rest of Point of View, one would think that Hills also has advanced degrees in botany and meteorology, with, perhaps, minors in art and literature. This is a songwriter overwhelmingly interested in the natural world, particularly weather and plant life, who likes to throw in references to Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. The art part comes in "My Daughter & Vincent Van Gogh," an account of her eight-year-old's trip to Washington, D.C., to see an art exhibit. Typically, however, the museum itself seems to disappear as the observer plunges right into the nature settings of the paintings. Even the city itself goes unremarked upon except, inevitably, for the cherry trees. Not surprisingly, Hills likes to anthropomorphize: "The Moon's Song," for example, is sung in the voice of the moon. Only rarely does the songwriter seem to be expressing her own point of view in Point of View, however. She is curiously self-effacing, at least until the last song, "Leaf," in which the narrator questions her own position, beginning, "Where do I fit in, what shape must I shift." These are appropriate questions for a songwriter who also painted the Van Gogh-like album cover, which depicts a woman posed before a starkly contrasting background, light on the left, dark on the right, whose eyes are obscured by what appears to be a mask or a little passing cloud, half white, half yellow. (On second thought, maybe the painting is a bit more like Magritte than Van Gogh.) There is sadness lurking around the edges of the songs, for instance in "Gardens," which is largely concerned with a nature description, until the end, when the narrator sings, "But you are gone, you are gone." Hills sings over gentle folk-pop arrangements in her warm, round-toned, unruffled soprano, usually suggesting Judy Collins and sometimes (e.g. "Two Year Winter") sounding almost exactly like her. But she also has a slight nasality in her upper register that is reminiscent of (but not as piercing, and thus not as irritating, as Peggy Seeger), particularly on songs in which she is accompanied only by her own banjo or guitar, such as "I'm Nobody" and "Leaf." She actually sounds more confident when covering the songs of others, turning in a Jennifer Warnes-like treatment on Leonard Cohen's "Alexandra Leaving." Hills has spent much of her career performing the songs of others, often in the company of fellow singers, some of whom (Priscilla Herdman, Cindy Mangsen) also turn up here in subsidiary roles. It is characteristic of her that, even when she takes the focus for herself, not only as a singer, but also as a songwriter, she is still intent on presenting "points of view," not just, or even especially, her own.

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