Victoria Williams – Sings Some ol’ Songs

Victoria Williams
Sings Some ol’ Songs

In general, few things in popular music smack of novelty and artistic laziness more than a covers album. For many songwriters, such a development can officially signal the running dry of the well of ideas and herald the permanent banishment of their artistry to the 99-cent bin. For Victoria Williams, as one of the few genuinely inspiring singer-songwriters to emerge over the last 20 years, such a loss would be truly disheartening. But, as few artists ever even reach a point of such stability in their career as to afford them such an opportunity as making a covers album, Victoria Williams has earned such a right, and given her unique gifts, she’s one of the few artists who seems likely to be able to pull off such a project. On Sings Some Ol’ Songs, Williams dives headlong into all of those potential conundrums and comes out amazingly well preserved.
No doubt, given Williams’ strong bent toward singer/songwriter material, one might expect the “ol’ songs” she recorded to be Appalachian folk tunes or songs drawn from the classic American songwriting tradition. That assumption would be decidedly wrong, however, as she has chosen a batch of well-worn pop standards and show tunes, meaning that their familiarity alone makes them somewhat dangerous candidates for reinterpretation. Still, completely to her credit, she turns that familiarity to her advantage, as the unique sense of innocence and naiveté with which she approaches tracks like “Moon River” and “Over the Rainbow” genuinely colors the tracks in ways that echo her distinctive talents. Largely employing a soft vocal jazz-like backing band, the arrangements are entirely classy, creating a slinky sense of fragility around Williams’ non-traditional vocal style. You might never have really wondered what Williams would sound like covering Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” but, just like Willie Nelson before her, she certainly doesn’t do the song any disservice with her interesting kalimba opening and tasteful reinterpretation.
Of course, the great charm in albums such as these (at least when they’re done successfully) is the rare opportunity to see an artist in a slightly different creative light. Selections like the loosely swinging Dixieland jazz of “Keep Sweeping Cobwebs Off the Moon” and the fun rollicking “Mongoose” do just that, allowing Williams to genuinely cut loose and show another side of her personality. The slight Caribbean feel of tracks like “I’m Old Fashioned” and the trippy “And Roses and Roses” also offer an interesting counterpoint to the more stately material, such as the standard “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
To be sure, few artists could pull off an album like this. Such an artist has to be in such total possession of his or her own distinctive stylistic gifts to know exactly how to translate and apply them in the recreation of someone else’s songs. Sure, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and George Jones can do it convincingly, but for someone who has always written her own songs like Victoria Williams, this must be particularly difficult. But just as artists like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash have proven themselves up to this task, so has Victoria Williams, making Sings Some Ol’ Songs a far from essential, though far from embarrassing release.