Victoria Williams and Mark Olson
The Boston Phoenix October 12 - 19, 2000
by Bill Kisliuk
Victoria Williams likes singing about little things. A frog named Claude. A hatpin. A lady and a dog she met near the desert hideaway she shares with her husband, former Jayhawks singer and guitarist Mark Olson. Not just anybody could pull this off. But there are reasons why Williams gets constant accolades from critics and has many devoted fans among larger-than-life figures in the roots and rock worlds, including Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, and Lou Reed. One is that she has a pretty good knack for animating those simple ideas and setting them to folk-pop arrangements that convey the same sense of lightheartedness and fragility. Another is her creaky, childlike, deeply emotive voice.
Both reasons are in evidence on Water To Drink (Atlantic), Williams's sixth and most recent CD. Although she spends much of the record caught up in life's more humble observations, there are times when her small voice is freighted with desperation, fragile and wild and on the verge of shattering These moments give her music depth, saving it from guileless bliss and choruses that go "shabby-dooby-dooby-dum." "Little Bird," one of nine originals on Water To Drink, is the story of a bird. He hops to the porch looking for a snack. He sees kids playing at a school. Yet the impossibly slow cadence and the sloshing brushwork of drummer Don Heffington and the plaintive fiddle of Petra Haden -- and mostly Williams's wobbly, lurching, almost out-of-control vocals -- give this tune an enormous emotional wallop. You don't know whether to roll your eyes at the little birdie's G-rated adventures or freeze in place until Williams breaks a spell reminiscent of Billie Holiday.
Water To Drink was originally conceived as a set of cover tunes. Two old standards -- "Young at Heart" and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" -- are set in lush string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks that help show off the changeability in Williams's voice. The title track, a bossa nova written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and adapted by Williams, is one of the happy-go-lucky numbers that dot the record and make it seem that her muse is as random and alluring as a really good thrift store. Some of her own material has more of an edge. The opening "Grandma's Hat Pin" is a sturdy, catchy pop tune that benefits from J.C. Hopkins's Wurlitzer organ and some deft background vocals and production.
Over the years, Williams's voice and pen have carried her from busking along the promenade at LA's Venice Beach to two rounds with Lilith Fair. Yet the Louisiana native is as famous for what's been done for her as for her own musical accomplishments. While opening for Neil Young on tour in 1992, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A subsequent tribute album, Sweet Relief (Columbia), featuring Williams songs done by Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M.'s Michael Penn, Lou Reed, and others, far outsold her own works. She has since turned Sweet Relief into something more. The Sweet Relief Foundation released another tribute (to Vic Chesnutt) in 1996; it's now working on a third, and it has doled out assistance to many musicians in medical need.
These days Williams and Olson, who'll perform this Sunday at the Somerville Theatre, are living (surrounded by their burros, dogs and fruit trees) and recording at a home studio in Joshua Tree, California, a desert town named for the bizarre trees that grow within a national park there. The region is already notorious in pop history: country-rock messiah Gram Parsons met his final reward there in 1973, and subsequently his road manager had his body stolen, cremated, and scattered in the region.
Parsons casts a long shadow over today's Americana and alterna-country
performers -- indeed, he's a direct forebear of Olson and his Original
Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, of which Williams is a charter member. On My
Own Mary Ellen (Hightone; out this Tuesday), Olson's laconic, unvarnished
voice jostles along to very simply recorded, slightly raggedy country-rock
originals. When Williams harmonizes with her husband on a few tracks, the
sound is mighty close to the music Gram Parsons made with Emmylou Harris.
Like Williams, Olson writes about the little things and out-of-the-way
spots. Many numbers allude to remote corners of California and the West,
places like Lone Pine and Yucca Mountain or the California Aqueduct, a
manmade river that flows for hundreds of miles through the Central Valley
and serves as a metaphor for all that is good and terrible in the Golden
State. One tune, "Ben Johnson's Creek," is the happiest little ditty you
are likely to hear about toxic sludge. It seems Olson is just as blissed
out in the countryside as is Williams.
Victoria Williams and Mark Olson and the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers
appear this Sunday, October 15, at the Somerville Theatre. Call 864-EAST.