If Vic Chesnutt is the Faulkner of contemporary Southern music -- brooding and gothic, with a strong thematic emphasis on the dark conflicts at work within the human soul -- then Victoria Williams bids fair to be its Eudora Welty: at once optimistic and wistful, forgiving of human faults, both her own and others', and gifted with a perfect ear for the languages of the heart and the mind. Water to Drink, her first album since 1998's much-praised Musings of a Creek Dipper, shows her stretching her talents in a few new directions while retaining her uniquely skewed vision and voice.
That voice, though, is the element of her craft that most often divides Williams' listeners. Once heard, Williams' instrument is unforgettable, an absolutely individual vocal style, a phrasing all her own. Throughout her solo albums -- and Williams generally works within a fairly limited vocal range, once you really pay attention -- she packs her delivery with twangy pronunciation, glissandos and grace notes. If that sort of thing bothers you, you might conceivably miss the very naked emotion within her work. Interestingly, though, the two most effectively sung tracks on Water are both vocal standards, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and "Young at Heart," which suggests that Williams' purest vocal idiom has been jazz all along.
Water to Drink is, like her previous albums, a kinda-sorta-country-folk exercise at its core, but Williams here tries several new moves. The title track, an English-language cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Agua de Beber," is an especially surprising inclusion, but once you play it through several times, you can't imagine it done any other way -- at least not by Williams. A couple of the stylistic experiments don't come off quite as well, however; the track "Lagniappe" -- the Cajun word they use in Williams' native Louisiana to signify just a wee little bit extra of whatever they're talking about -- tends to chase its own tail in a sing-along delivery of repetitive lyrics, and the whole thing might be a bit too cutesy for its own good. Williams is at her best when delivering strong and thoughtful narrative material, which "Lagniappe" surely isn't. But the tracks "Claude" and "Junk," which are, rank with the best of Williams' own songs; and the album's closer, "A Little Bit of Love," is in many ways a perfect summation of Williams' songcraft -- music which is intended to celebrate, and maybe even foster, relations between people who just need a bit of extra care to get through a particularly rough day. The jaded may say what they please about that eyes-wide attitude, but there are few contemporary artists who display the kind of childlike faith in the healing power of music that Williams does, and her best moments here outshine anything she's done since 1990's Swing the Statue.
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Williams' husband, Mark Olson, late of the Jayhawks, is up to the same kind of goodness on My Own Jo Ellen, his Hightone Records debut with the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers (of which Victoria is a charter member). Jo Ellen has a lot more in common with straight-up country-rock than Williams' folky musings, but as fans of the Jayhawks will already be aware, any release from Olson is going to bear the stamp of Gram Parsons all over it, and that's about as worthwhile an influence as one could hope for. Wonderful to report, My Own Jo Ellen might have been recorded with Parsons looking over Olson's shoulder.
Not that My Own Jo Ellen is just a rewrite of Grievous Angel, by any means. Though the songs on Olson's album owe at least as much to the best work by Dylan and the Band -- "Linda Lee" sounds like it could have been an outtake from Planet Waves -- and his voice bears more than a few similarities with G.P.'s, the talent herein is Olson's alone. Moreover, Olson's a sharp observer of human interaction, which means that songs like "Someone to Talk With" and "Walking Through Nevada" are shot through with telling lines like "Both carried a jar of water/Runnin' into each other." You could think all day and not come up with a better metaphor for falling in love than that.
Human connection is the primary topic of this album, in fact, from the title track (an homage to Olson's grandmother) to "Ben Johnson's Creek," the story of a lone man facing down a group of land developers, to the electric-guitar-driven lament "Rainbow of Your Heart." And it would be criminal not to mention the wonderful-beyond-the-telling "Diamond Davey," a funny story of (I swear to God) an attempted suicide foiled by divine intervention and a well-placed chain-link fence, which opens with one of the most compelling images in recent musical memory: "Diamond Davey jumped into the Californy aqueduct/Into the river the man made/Diamond Davey had no plans, so he floated downstream/On the waters of industry."
When the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo pointed the way for country-rock, Parsons and Co. might have had this album in mind for a quarter-century down the line. Understated and heartfelt, My Own Jo Ellen is one of the strongest releases from Hightone, a label rightly praised for its promotion of serious-minded Americana. If roots music experiences a resurgence in the coming months (as it goddamn well deserves to, after a vapid year like the one we just suffered through), it'll be on the strength of albums like Olson's.