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
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
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.