Had it not been for the misfortune of illness (multiple sclerosis, diagnosed in 1992) and the generosity of friends, the uplifting magic of Victoria Williams’ warbly jazz-country voice and unique musical observations might never have spread much beyond the tiny cult that had been attracted by her first two albums. A classic case of extravagant talent undersold by a humble personality, the two records are quietly remarkable and were commercially doomed on principle.
On Happy Come Home, producers Anton Fier and Stephen Soles make the mistake of burying Williams and her eccentric voice in a massive studio effort; Williams sounds like an avalanche survivor, vainly trying to climb out from under sitars, drum machines and horn sections. The pair’s only stroke of insight was hiring Van Dyke Parks to do string arrangements on three songs — the album’s best, especially the charming fairy tale about a colorful oldtimer, “TC.” Parks and Williams are kindred souls: childlike, fanciful and impatient with pop formats. Other delightful evidence of Williams’ outsized talent here are “Frying Pan,” “Opelousas” and “Happy,” a funny number about the confusion engendered by a neighborhood dog with that cheerful name.
Co-produced by Michael Blair (percussionist and multi- instrumentalist with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello), Swing the Statue! is a vast improvement. Williams sounds like she’s in control here. Her often-remarkable lyrics can be heard this time, and her rangy voice — an intoxicating blend of little-girl breathiness and old- lady crackle and wisdom that is definitely an acquired taste — is well out front. (As is her idiosyncratic Christianity, in the gospel-country “Holy Spirit.”) There are a few annoying moments, like the cutesy “Wobbling” (about a baby bird) and the repetitious, screechy “On Time.” But songs like “Tarbelly and Featherfoot,” with its haunting piano refrain, the wry, chilling “Summer of Drugs” memoir and the moving “I Can’t Cry Hard Enough” triumphantly unveil Williams’ personal vision.
Fortunately, among those whose hearts were captured by the exceptional charm and spiritual resonance of the Louisiana-born singer/songwriter’s small-town character studies were Lou Reed, Evan Dando and members of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Giant Sand and Pearl Jam. With their participation, Sweet Relief — a touching album of Williams tunes (two of them not yet recorded by her) given heartfelt readings by those artists, as well as the Waterboys, Maria McKee, Michael Penn, Michelle Shocked, Shudder to Think and Matthew Sweet — helped defray the uninsured singer’s medical expenses and provided the basis for an industry-wide organization, the Sweet Relief Musicians Trust Fund, which in ’96 turned the spotlight on Vic Chesnutt, producing a fund-raising album of his music.
With her disease in remission, Williams made the absolutely wonderful Loose, a sublime masterpiece positively glowing with love and good feelings. Even when she’s ruing the death of beloved friends (as in “Happy to Have Known Pappy” and “Harry Went to Heaven”), Williams can only express her joy at the experience of knowing such fine folks. Navigating sentimentality with pure artistry, this gifted word painter gently breathes metaphysical life into the ordinary people on whom she sets her lyrical sights. Her songs amplify the emotional impact of letters from home with the spiritual intensity of a believer who has been delivered from her own crisis while weathering the pain of others. Working with a stellar company of musicians (including Dave Pirner, Andrew Williams, members of R.E.M. and the Jayhawks), producer Paul Fox demonstrates real ingenuity in helping to fashion diverse responses to Williams’ inventions: “Crazy Mary” has pedal steel, loads of strings and a snarling Peter Buck electric guitar solo; “You R Loved” runs on Van Morrisonesque soul power with two organists, a horn section and a crisp backbeat; “What a Wonderful World” is given full standard honors with just piano and strings; “My Ally,” a duet with Pirner, needs only the pair’s acoustic guitars and an undercurrent of Wurlitzer organ. Throughout, Williams wields her idiosyncratic voice, with microtonal pitch control and time-out delayed phrasing, like a jazz instrument, begging comparison to Blossom Dearie, although she’s probably never sung Spirit’s “Nature’s Way,” as Williams pointedly does here.
The ’95 live album finds Williams holding cozy court with a sextet in an onstage living room with typical casual modesty: in the course of sixteen songs from her albums and elsewhere (including covers and two originals she has not previously recorded), Williams apologizes for an untuned guitar, denies (and then proves) her ability to play piano, improvises a song to her dog, worries about the Canadian comprehensibility of “Hitchhiker” and generally charms the pants off a rapturous Toronto audience. Encouraged by Williams’ jazziest singing (check the graceful “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), however, the piano-based chamber-pop arrangements reach rarefied Joni Mitchell levels, and the album tilts dangerously toward the preciousness Williams’ best studio work (and guitar-based concerts) so easily resists.
Four years after the masterful looseness of Loose, Williams returned with the subtle rural elegance of Musings of a Creekdipper (the title is a reference to her involvement, under the name Mabel Allbright, with ex-Jayhawk and second husband Mark Olson’s Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers). Co-produced by Williams and Trina Shoemaker, the album’s relaxed pace rests the singer comfortably in her own jazz-folk niche, and she has never sounded more at home. The understated brush-strokes in “Let It Be So” (one of two songs featuring backing vocals by, of all people, former Prince cohorts Wendy and Lisa) and “Rainmaker” — both striking examples of the power in restraint — slowly reveal unequaled passion and warmth. The clink-clank country of “Kashmir’s Corn” is still somehow grand and mysterious, and the funky, loping “Train Song (Demise of the Caboose)” is both comical and mournful in its observances of dying Americana (“Steal the joy from a young child’s heart / Just when it gets to the groovy part”). A few weak spots — the languid, slightly chaotic vocal-jazz of “Nature Boy,” for one — are not enough to tarnish the overall charm, and Williams’ spirit and talent are in full bloom. Only she could make a slight back-porch sing-along like “Humming Bird” so bright and reassuring, or write a song called “Grandpa in the Cornpatch” that makes you smile in a good way. The album’s thematic consistency makes it feel less adventurous than Williams’ past work — as if some of her belated childlike innocence had finally fled — but that didn’t become a real problem until the next release.
Water to Drink isn’t a bad album — there are too many worthy tunes to entirely disparage it — but its breezy, refined demeanor leaves less of an impression than most of Williams’ boondock siren-songs. Cool snatches of horns mix fruitfully with easygoing country-rock in “Gladys and Lucy,” “Joy of Love” and “A Little Bit of Love,” while “Light the Lamp Freddie” and “Lagniappe” float on a waft of California pop enough that you’d swear Stevie Nicks had traded in her black shawl for a knitted sweater. Most striking is “Junk,” a swampy roots-rocker with eerie Beatlesesque looping that resembles another singing Williams, namely Lucinda. Things go wrong, however, when Victoria and co-producer J. C. Hopkins head to the jazz club, filling the rest of the disc with lounge-style frivolities and primordial pop standards. The title track, an oddly catchy but ultimately cheesy take on Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, finds the singer truly becoming that girl from Ipanema. Dusty staples like “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and “Young at Heart” receive a Williams work-over — the former complete with a Parks string arrangement — but it’s difficult to remember them after they’re done playing; the jazzy originals here are just as forgettable save for an uncanny (if evidently unintended) impersonation of Carol Channing in “Claude.” For whatever reason, Williams’ personality, once so vivid and immediate, appears tempered. Her trademark vocal eccentricities and unusual lyrics are not as apparent, and the streamlined arrangements are certainly not enough to carry the weight. This Water to Drink is lukewarm.
Sings Some Ol’ Songs loots the attic for even more jazz/pop classics, and proves, surprisingly, that an entire album brimming with the very thing that made Water to Drink weak was not such a bad idea. Her exaggerated delivery adds a unique edge to “Blue Skies,” she portrays a little girl lost in a stunning rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and the ultra-spare keyboard arrangement in “As Time Goes By” couldn’t be more beautiful. Elsewhere, Williams sips a smooth cocktail in “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” relinquishes herself to the Salvation Army Band racket of “Mongoose,” and lets loose like someone’s loony aunt after a few too many in “I’m Old Fashioned.” The hit parade gets a bit wearisome at times — “My Funny Valentine” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” are downright soporific — but it’s an agreeable spin for those whose taste runs to Norah Jones or Katharine Whalen.