Disappear Fear,
Seed in the Sahara
(Rounder/Philo, 1996)

Seed in the Sahara is kind of the bridge album for Disappear Fear. Originally, two sisters, Sonia Rutstein and Cindy Frank, fronted the band. (Differences in surnames came about not through Frank's marriage but when Sonia first took on Anne Frank's name to separate her family from any possible homophobic attacks. Cindy adapted it, then Sonia decided to revert to their actual family name.) Rutstein more-or-less went solo in the mid-'90s when Cindy married and wanted to take a break to have children. Although Cindy is thanked in album credits and sang background vocals on various tracks, she is not pictured anywhere on the CD booklet and did not seem to be considered an integral part of the band.

Previous albums showcased their duets and their self-appointed theme of "Love Out Loud." They were a lesser known, sibling version of the Indigo Girls, who indeed sang back-up vocals on an earlier release. Here, it's Sonia performing her songs and guitars with a three-piece band backing her. Part of her strength lies in her vocals; she has one of those wine- and smoke-flavored voices that can be slightly raspy, yet remain full and vigorous. With politically edged songs with lyrics that give away her liberal views -- songs such as "Skin," on which she's joined by Cindy in verses sung in English and Spanish -- are get-up-and-dance tunes, funky folk-rock with Blues Traveler-like harmonica and electric guitar rhythms. It starts with a chorus that's reminiscent of a line from To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really know somebody until you get into his skin ... Skin/Jump in/So you really think you know/What I'm talking about."

But sometimes it's the songs that worked against Rutstein. "Laura" has a chorus you can sing along to; its first line, "Love is louder than time," rings of the song's theme. However, the song itself has trouble -- there are times when it seems forced, as if the lines don't entirely scan with the music. "Today is Better" sometimes suffers equally. It's not until the end of the song, around the verse "And they may drive a million miles/Before the Camel kills them," that it hits its stride. And while the opening track, "Laws of Nature," improves faster, it again starts with that "forced" feeling. Lyrics such as "I think the old men who wrote the Bible/Were in a sad solid state of denial" are brilliant, and the chorus scans wonderfully, but the first lines just don't make it the best fit for the introduction to the album. Overall, I think this song would fit better as the album's closing number, although I understand that as the first number, it does the job of telling her audience, in a lighthearted rhythm, that this is who she is -- take it or leave it.

On the second track, "B.Y.O.G. (Bring Your Own God)," the vocals are in a lower range, with Rutstein almost becoming a female Tom Waits as she leads on to a more serious theme. The line "Bring Your Own God" may seem sacrilegious to those of a more conservative bend, but her meaning is just the opposite. "Why" sounds as if it could have appeared on an earlier album, with acoustic guitars and harmonicas maintaining a folk-pop beat throughout the song.

Sometimes it's simplicity that says it the best, however. The title track is carefully arranged in terms of its musical background; despite the fact that electric guitars and keyboards are used, it's the voice that's the star. This song stands out with "Skin" as one of the stronger selections. Its chorus sounds like one the Indigo Girls, in an earlier incarnation, could have covered and made their own.

Seed in the Sahara is a mixed bag, but then, it is a bridge album. It filled the gap between a Disappear Fear that featured two sisters sharing the microphone to Rutstein going solo simply as Sonia.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 21 June 2003

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