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The Boston Phoenix Natural Highs

The magical realism of Victoria Williams.

By Joan Anderman

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Victoria Williams has moved to the desert. She recorded her new album, Musings of a Creekdipper (Atlantic), near her home in Joshua Tree, California, and the music is as starkly beautiful, as mystical and fractured and earthy, as the landscape itself. Williams's last studio album, 1994's Loose (Atlantic), was her Big Budget Los Angeles Project, brimming with name players, elaborate arrangements, and high concepts. And though critics lauded Loose for its baroque marriage of sophisticated craftsmanship and rootsy authenticity, Creekdipper is a testament to the power of purity. Narrow in scope and utterly focused -- on the natural world, mainly -- Creekdipper channels Williams's almost otherworldly innocence, faith, and connection to nature into a musical rendering of magical realism.

Williams is a rarity in these jaded, cynical times. Her outlook is as childlike and wise as her crackling trill of a voice: embrace nature, love one another, and cherish life's small pleasures each and every day. That sounds like a popular-music nightmare on paper, but Williams nestles her message in an idiosyncratic, postpunk patchwork of folk, jazz, country, and avant-garde pop that defies mainstream classification. Since her debut, in 1987, Williams's primitive-eccentric style hasn't changed much; production approaches, however, have.

Loose producer Paul Fox (Björk, XTC) favored ironic juxtaposition -- weird ol' Victoria versus the expert session guys -- as the path to profundity. But rather than bring her quirky gifts into relief, the result allowed Williams's subtle, eccentric charms to fade into bulky rhythms and clever, ornate string sections. Creekdipper, by contrast, is a deep breath of clean desert air. Williams and co-producer Trina Shoemaker (Daniel Lanois's longtime engineer and the co-producer of Sheryl Crow's latest) concocted a sound as organic and singular as Williams's tunes. Her voice seems to rise like a thin, wild weed from the spare and scattered musical vistas. On "Kashmir's Corn," for instance, banjo, bass, pedal steel, percussion, and Chamberlin voices thread together into the loosest net of music, barely there, then pull tightly together for a piece, and finally split again into strands. Not a conventional structure, to be sure, but a most natural setting for Williams's blissed-out dream sequence. A true American primitive, Williams deals in myth, not metaphor; the song portrays a horse kneeling on the ground under a full moon, holding court with 15 rabbits.

It requires a truly unfettered vision to follow "Kashmir's Corn" with a Moog-bass-and-Wurlitzer-driven funk treatise, powered by Prince protégées Wendy and Lisa, lamenting the demise of the caboose. "Train Song" is the wild card in this bunch: a way-plugged-in -- if laid-back -- groove that you can dance to. Wendy and Lisa popped in on a number of sessions, casting a faintly urban glow over the earthy pageant of kalimbas, ocarina, dulcimers, clarinets, and the usual assortment of guitars, piano, etc. But if a relatively mainstream pop offering is this album's novelty, it logically follows that "Allergic Boy," as splintered and surreal a song as you'll hear on Creekdipper, is vintage Williams, at her sparkling strangest. It's a free-jazz fairytale -- told by wheezing bass clarinet, sputtering snare and cymbals, a yo-yoing bass guitar, a few melancholy piano notes, and Williams's tumbledown soprano -- about a child who returns home half-dead after eating pie at a backyard birthday party. Not by a longshot the loveliest, or easiest, track to listen to, "Allergic Boy" points up Williams's gently anomalous persona: earth mama and space cadet, surrealist and pragmatist, traditionalist and eccentric.

Williams has attained a monumental level of alterna-folk credibility; her well-publicized struggle with multiple sclerosis catapulted her from beloved cult songwriter to American treasure. Creekdipper conveys a sense of her emerging stature in the culture with a reverential celebration of roots -- in music, in nature, and in human relationships. "Periwinkle Sky" is a lilting explication of a rainstorm as it brews, bursts, and passes. "Tree Song" extols the healing virtues of plant life in a musical vocabulary as sleepy as Williams after a mug of her well-loved eucalyptus tea. The sweet, simple "Hummingbird" is an instant folk classic; all soaring harmonies and comforting refrains, it sounds as if it had been sung around a thousand campfires. "Grandpa in the Cornpatch," though suffering from a personality disorder (tender ballad, military march, Tin Pan Alley ditty?), is a poignant reflection on the last days of a well-lived life (a photo of Williams's grandfather, in that very cornpatch, is included in the CD booklet).

The album's final track, "Blackbirds Rise," was inspired by a pilgrimage Williams made to Shiloh Baptist cemetery, to play music around Huddie Ledbetter's grave. For all its eccentricities, Musings of a Creekdipper is a paean to the past, to its simpler music and its simpler joys -- when trains rumbled through fields and connected small towns, girls knew what grew in the ground, and a dip in a creek was enough to make a soul feel complete.

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