Where I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.
1994 – Mammoth
I’ve been quietly looking for this album for around 20 years. Victoria Williams came into my world in two ways. One, the moderately famous Sweet Relief compilation that was a tribute to her, featuring huge bands like Pearl Jam, Buffalo Tom, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams and others. The other was the wonderful song that the Jayhawks, and her husband Mark Olson, wrote about her.
That Sweet Relief tribute came about because Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Musicians don’t have health care, and her plight became a lightning rod for musicians in the 90s to set up the Sweet Relief Fund, to help musicians without health care. The fund still exists today, 23 years later, and still helps people.
Loose actually comes after that tribute record, which had covered songs from her early albums. I’ve not heard those albums, but this one is apparently bigger and more ambitious. At a full 16 tracks (oh, the 90s…), and featuring a massive array of famous stars, it was designed to break Williams into the mainstream. It failed miserably.
The early 90s were full of eccentric records – it seems it came down marketing and personality. And Williams is a wonderful weirdo. I was expecting a low key folk-y, countryish, Freakwater-y album. But third song in, we get Harry Went To Heaven, which sounds like Kate Bush fronting a hotel jazz band. There’s a cover of Louis Armstrong‘s What A Wonderful World, with a string quartet. And maybe because I hear it in every female singer with a guitar, but the jazzy stuff sounds like jazzy Joni Mitchell. Which is only a good thing.
There’s more than a little 90s alterna-rock here. Crazy Mary was the single (and was covered by Pearl Jam) and by far her most famous song. A dramatic character study like, say, Luka, with big strings and a buzzy guitar and weird spoken verses, it doesn’t sound anything like a hit.
Williams, from her album covers, looked beautiful. And she would marry one of my favourite songwriters, Mark Olson of the Jayhawks. Their 1995 album Tomorrow The Green Grass is amongst my favourite albums, especially when I was 17. The second song was Miss Williams Guitar, a tribute to Victoria. I am still, today, so in love with that song that through transitive properties, it carries over to Victoria.
There’s a bit of Jayhawks on this album. Olson plays on it, and that soulful country mix almost makes this sound, in some places, like an early Jayhawks album with a different singer. Olson and Williams share a sweet duet called When We Sing Together.
Overall, the album is lovely. I feel like if I bought this album when I was 17 like I should have, when I was most obsessed with albums that sounded like this, this could possibly mean a lot more to me. I probably would have worked out the chords to these songs, jammed them with friends, put them on mix tapes.
Williams and Olson packed their bags after this and moved out to Joshua Tree. Olson left the Jayhawks, and that was a big issue in itself. But I bought many of the albums the pair made under the name The Original Harmony Creek Dippers, pretty much the most lo-fi albums you’ve ever heard. But as a songwriter in my teens, I had the fantasy of being a hermit, hiding in the country, me and a beautiful perfect singer, making little homespun albums. Williams and Olson lived that dream. It broke my heart when they broke up in 2006.
Loose is a sweet album, with lots of character and charm. Far too much to make her the next Lisa Loeb or Gwen Stefanie or whoever the label might have been thinking. As we are not in the 90s, it could easily lose 4-6 songs. But perhaps that’s the nice thing about those 16 track albums – more room to be weird. It’s far more jazzy than I anticipated, which I like.