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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
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+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
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Victoria Williams
Sings Some Ol' Songs

Singer/songwriter Victoria Williams' voice is unique — to say the least. Some folks love her old-time little-girl warble; others find it a bit too idiosyncratic for their tastes. I think Williams sounds refreshing and dramatic. She accents the songs she sings with theatricality, branding them with her quirky vocals.

Her latest album finds her singing a diverse collection of songs she didn't write. Yet Williams manages what others wouldn't even dare to attempt: she updates classics with panache, never letting the patina of time or predictability stifle her muse.

To me, Williams is like Tom Waits: both are acquired tastes; both have a penchant for the oddball. And both are daringly original, managing to sound like they've just arrived from the past, but with music that doesn't quite sound like anything you've heard before.

Williams, a respected folk singer, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992. After she was unable to afford the medical bills, fellow-musician friends came to the rescue, creating Sweet Relief, a fund that has since served other musicians in need. Williams has, in the years since her 1987 debut Happy Come Home (which featured string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks), delivered many gems, including 1998's bare Musings of a Creek Dipper and 2000's celebrated Water to Drink. Though Sings Some Ol' Songs was recorded intermittently, in between touring and working on some of her previous releases, it makes for a cohesive, sturdy album.

The strongest tracks are the ones that depart the most from the original versions. "And Roses and Roses" simmers with its Latin beat and conga-like percussion. The song cha-chas along until its dreamy chorus. "I think of the roses that bloom in the spring/ Love is a wonderful thing," Williams sings, her voice set off by the sound of violins.

Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" swells with piano flourishes. Williams sings with a sense of amazement that compliments the song's sanguine, hopeful nature. Though it's forever associated with Judy Garland, Williams still manages to make the song her own.

"Keep Sweeping Cobwebs off the Moon" would fit in at a Western saloon. "What good is your pining/ Find the silver lining," Williams croons, invoking her folksy roots as a compelling storyteller, singing the song's narrative over a brassy backdrop of tuba, coronet and clarinet. Similarly, "Mongoose" is a wily ride, thanks to Williams' storytelling skills.

My only gripe is the stripped-down version of "As Time Goes By." The spoken-word introduction and glittery Wurlitzer don't mesh with Williams' sensibilities. The song comes across as discordant and whiny.

One bland song is not enough to curb Williams' momentum or cloud her refreshing vision. Sings Some Ol' Songs works because Williams exudes an old-world charm. Rather than a holding action while an artist comes up with new, original material, as cover albums often can be, this collection of both known and not-so-known oldies is an artful and worthy album. Williams has managed to take the familiar and, with her distinctive voice and complimentary arrangements, make it sound like something new.

by Brian Orloff

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