I was first heard Victoria Williams’ music on the benefit album, Sweet Relief. What a beautiful and glorious album. With a cast of artists from Lucinda Williams to Pearl Jam, from Lou Reed to Soul Asylum, Sweet Relief was miraculously able to transcend the fragmentary nature of most tributes to create a vibrant whole that reverberated with life. Not only wasn’t there a weak track on the entire thing, but cumulatively, refracted through the musical prism of all these other artists, Williams’ songs provided strong evidence of a new vitality in American folk-rock. I spun through the CD enough times to finally take the plunge and buy some of her CDs, as well as some of her hubby Mark Olson’s band, the Jayhawks.
I have to admit to being disappointed. While Williams is unparalleled as a songwriter, especially as a lyricist, I found Happy Come Home and Swing the Statue to be musically rather thin. This is shameful thing to admit for someone who likes Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and other chanteurs and chanteuses whose vocal cords have been dragged a little too long down the gravel road of alcohol and cigarette abuse, but I got stuck on Williams’ voice-a frail, high-pitched thing that you either love or loathe. Listening to these early records, I kept hearing Lucinda Williams’ voice as I listened to Victoria’s version of “Main Road” — Lucinda’s eeriely perfect attack and release, her smoky, sexy ability to drag out one word with great intensity, only to utter the next indifferently, lazily, in a way perfectly attuned to the demands of the song. By comparison, Victoria Williams’ singing couldn’t help but suffer. So while I remained a devotee of the Jayhawks — who remain one of the most underappreciated bands in America — I stopped listening to Victoria Williams, catching her newer releases only in bits and pieces at friends’ homes, who insisted that I didn’t know what I was missing.
Seven years later, Williams’ new release, Water to Drink, has become a fixture in my CD tray. I now can’t seem to figure out exactly what troubled me so much earlier: the one weak link in Williams’ music-her voice-now strikes me as one of its greatest assets. I don’t know if this is because Williams’ vocal chords are maturing or because I’m starting to hear better now that I don’t go out quite so often. Whatever the case may be, Water to Drink is one of those albums that you know will be good from the get-go. “Grandma’s Hat Pin” plunges energetically right into familiar territory: Williams’ poetic evocation of an America of small towns and families, held together by fragments of childhood memory that are tinged with both hope and fear. Initially, the horns that open the next track, “Gladys and Lucy,” got me worried: was this the sign of an overproduction that is an all-too familiar feature of albums that record companies hope will constitute an artist’s commercial breakthrough? But as the song settled into Williams’ familiar folk-rock groove, my fears on this score were happily unrealised.
There’s not only a lot to like on Water to Drink, but a surprising degree of musical variety. For every song like “Light the Lamp Freddie,” one of Williams’ typically joyous paeans to life itself (“Close your eyes / To the lullaby / Waving fields / Must be the flowers growing toward the light / There comes a time / You must run everywhere you grow”), there’s her interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morales’ “Water to Drink,” which covers more familiar ground than one might have expected given its jazz inflections (“I wanted to love / But I was afraid / I protected my heart fear has the power to deadened your heart”). I’m not so sure about Van Dyke Parks’ string arrangements on “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and “Young at Heart,” but I think my resistance has less to do with aesthetics than with my own predisposition to see Williams as a folk rather than a jazz singer. Repeated spins have convinced me that her charmingly vampy jazz style points to yet another arena in which Williams could easily excel.
Water to Drink has given me more joy that any record has in a long time. This is a truly beautiful and meaningful album; its vibrant hope slips into your veins and through your skin through aural osmosis. Williams sings at one point that “Fixing up junk / That’s what were born into this world to do.” If that’s true, she’s more than done her part here. In the whimsical “Little Bird,” Williams can barely contain herself, laughing as she paints a whole world of experience through the random flight of a small bird:
Hopping down from the tree
To the porch
Hoping that there will be something left
From the party before
All he finds
Is someone’s teary handkerchief
Flies off to the loghouse school
Now the children play
And hold each other’s hand in single file
How they laugh, how they tease
Little birdy sees
And he carries it all away
It’s a world that I would encourage all of you to visit for awhile.