By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
You are what you eat--and what you hear, and where you live, and what you look at, and who you listen to, and what you inhale, and every bit of energy you subject yourself to. That's easy for most of us to forget as we try to craft well-rounded selves outside of our workaday lives, free of those hours spent being where we don't want to be, doing things we don't want to do. Surrounded by demanding customers, or heavy machinery, or taupe cubicle walls. And it's what makes the life and lifestyle choices of singer/songwriter insider/outsider Victoria Williams so compelling. We're talking O Magazine amazing.
Every profile of Williams follows the same outline. The writer mentions her quirkiness (the childlike wonder, the geriatric quaver, the creek-dipping zest), and then her history (born and raised in Louisiana, moved to the busking circuit in L.A., was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was the subject of a star-studded tribute/benefit record put out by pals like Dave Pirner and Peter Buck in 1996, married then-Jayhawk Mark Olson), and then her current situation (lives with Olson in the Joshua Tree desert with several animals and food-bearing plants, makes records in a spiffy new studio). Then the writer will quickly assert that although this is all very interesting, you shouldn't go thinking that the backstory or the love story or the resilience-through-illness story is in any way propping up the music. No way. This music holds up, all on its very own!
Now, Williams's soulful, playful jazzy-folky stew has never been easy to categorize, and it is truly lovely stuff, hardly deserving of being reduced to biographical byproduct. But you know what? The backstory does make it better. Williams knows it, too, posing radiantly in press shots with her pets, on her porch, near her fruit trees. And why shouldn't she? Her newest record, Water to Drink, was recorded at home (of course). And although mixed and tweaked elsewhere (the three standards recorded sparely at Joshua Tree are overlaid with sympathetic Van Dyke Parks string arrangements), the meticulous mellowness of the Williams-Olson routine is in the grooves. The vibe is maximum R&R: vitamins, herbs, sunsets, and starlight. What's better in the desert than Water to Drink?
Williams's last solo record, Musings of a Creekdipper, was, by comparison, a far more expansively produced affair. Tracks like the firmamental "Periwinkle Sky" got their cathedral swirl at Daniel Lanois's Teatro studio, where Williams worked with producer Trina Shoemaker. By contrast, even with the loungy organs and horn bursts, Water sounds more barefoot-in-the-kitchen. And although it still steers clear of the country-folk that marks the three recent self-released albums by Olson's Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, on which Williams appears, she comfortably croons Water's jangling, show-tuney repertoire like she's home sipping her nettle tea and singing to her dog full-voice along with the phonograph.
While Williams has never been concerned with hawking her particulars as universals, her fave subject matter remains the little liberations of everyday life. Her message is always that ecstatic epiphanies are ever possible--if you just look at the smallest everyday details and doodads through the eyes of an enlightened stoner. As usual, the complex verses of songs like "Gladys and Lucy" resolve into the grand simplicity of exultant refrains like "New day for you/New day for me/Walkin' on these hills." The ominous "Grandma's Hat Pin" is a brave rumination on apron strings that tug from the past. But even if Williams worries that well-meaning folks with antiquated views might "try to mess up my eyes," she resolves that "To wear Grandma's hat pin/You don't necessarily have to agree with every thought she bore within." Ultimately, she seems hopeful by chorus-time that "Forgiveness is there waiting/By the bridge."
Water was originally conceived as a standards record until the standards got crowded out by Williams's new material. And so much the better. Though routinely compared to Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, Williams is certainly in a more prolific writing phase these days than the other two (who have both recently released covers records themselves). She still likes fixing up beloved old stuff though, as she admits in "Junk," and it shows in her treatment of standards like "Young at Heart" and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along"--her intrepid little voice hopscotching from phoneme to phoneme, greeting each new phrase with a fresh mini-yelp. The title track, "Water to Drink," a translation of the Brazilian tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim, is refreshing, too--the celebration and result of her lifestyle choice to ingest, inhabit, and absorb only the pure, the kind, and the quirkily beautiful.