When Victoria Williams was growing up in Louisiana, she would often visit her grandmother. An old radio in the house played classic songs by Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Hoagy Carmicheal to name a few. These songs seemed to stay with Williams despite forging a grand path in acoustic and roots music. Throughout her live sets, a few of these standards would show up and seemed to give the singer yet another untapped range. Not one for usually singing other people’s songs, these performances seem to work well in her style. Now, for the first time, these songs that have been recorded from 1993 and 2002, are seeing the official light of day. And while the thought of a creaky and quirky vocal from Williams on these numbers may seem strange, for the most part nothing could be further from the truth.
From the opening count on “Moon River”, Williams takes the Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer song and gives the listener everything but the kitchen sink before the first 90 seconds. From a twangy laugh as she mentions “her huckleberry room” to the childlike wonder in other portions, the standard magically becomes her own standard. The light touch of harmonica near its conclusion seems appropriate. “Blue Skies” is a bit harder to get into though, as Williams and her vocals really never get a grasp on the tune until well after the first minute. Moving from a jazz purr and sultriness to a style that resembles Mary Margaret O’Hara or Jane Siberry, while ambitious this tune doesn’t quite pay off as well as the preceding song.
“And Roses And Roses” has Williams singing like a child and almost with a baby-ish quality to it. “Roses and roses and roses / I think of roses that bloom in the spring”, she sings in her fragile tone. It seems fitting for a romantic interlude from a Woody Allen motion picture. Petra Haden’s violin adds a lot to the number also. “Over The Rainbow”, made famous by Judy Garland, is well within Williams to pull off. Aided by only her piano and an economical violin and cello, she doesn’t strain for the high notes, relying on her unique sense of timing and texture to transmit the same emotions. You can almost hear her awe and wonderment at what lies over the arc. Unfortunately “My Funny Valentine” doesn’t get off the ground as Williams can be heard adjusting her hand over the guitar’s neck. It’s a brief action, but it diminishes the vocals from the beginning. Moving between a country and jazz vocal, Williams never quite finds her voice here.
One of the better moments is the Tom Waits carnival or vaudeville atmosphere on “Keep Sweeping Cobwebs off the Moon”. Resembling Waits and his more recent projects, Williams gives an early ‘40s-ish delivery and style that stays true to the song’s origin. Brian Kane’s clarinet and Jon Birdsong’s tuba give it that ‘40s vibe that seems to carry the song. Another surprise is how the song picks up the pace, albeit briefly, during the bridge. Williams turns “As Time Goes By” on its musical head by beginning with a short speech. It’s her performance though that is perhaps the album’s crowning achievement. Not sounding too much like a jazz diva but avoiding her yokel-like tone she can be guilty of sometimes, Williams is on top of her game on this song. Some may sing it better, but few with the same gut feeling.
The Ira and George Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch over Me” is perhaps the track that is one of the more routine covers. Backed by a Wurlitzer and Petra Haden’s precious backing vocals, the tune doesn’t grasp the listener’s attention like so many others before it. That isn’t to say it’s horrid or worth skipping, but doesn’t have much spark or flare to it during its four and a half minutes. “Mongoose” is the shortest and liveliest track. Resembling a possible Macy Gray interlude, Williams and her vocals are often one step ahead of the harmony vocals, which adds a certain element of ragged joy to it.
“Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” rounds out the record on a smoky jazz room feeling. When Williams stays strictly true to the originals, the songs suffer greatly. When she plays with them, they seem to bloom from the beginning. This last song seems to have a bit of both in it, as the vocals only briefly hint at something better. But it’s too little and too late. Not the stellar album one might expect from this gifted singer-songwriter, although a definite keeper.
// Notes from the Road
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