Few artists today have pursued such a resolutely indiosyncratic path as the helium-voiced Victoria Williams and husband Mark Olson. Each had a solid career before they met, Williams as an odd-woman-out in the last wave of late '80s singer-songwriters, and Olson as a member of the longlived country-indie outfit, the Jayhawks. Recording together as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, Olson and Williams have gone off about as far into left field, musically speaking, as possible, staying true to a Muse that is as big a goofball as they themselves seem to be. Here's a quick look at their catalog, which can sometimes be as vexing as it is magical.
Victoria Williams "Happy Come Home" (Geffen, 1987)
Victoria Williams "Swing The Statue" (Mammoth, 1990)
Victoria Williams "Loose" (Mammoth, 1994)
Mark Olson's first appearance on a Williams album.
Victoria Williams & The Loose Band "This Moment In Toronto" (Mammoth, 1995)
Live versions of songs from Williams' career to date, and an early bit of dabbling with the standards ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"). It may be for the true fan only, but still a nice chance to check out what she sounds like in concert.
The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers "The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers" (Self-Released, 1997)
When this first came out, it seemed like a nutty little album; in retrospect, it may be a bit formless and loose-ended, sort of a warm-up for things to come. Mark Olson warbles about things that don't make much sense; Victoria Williams sings a sorta-kinda harmony on several songs, and co-writes a few as well. It's mostly Olson's show, but it does set the tone for all their goofball, spaced-out ramblings yet to come.
The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers "Pacific Coast Rambler" (Self-Released, 1998)
Victoria Williams "Musings Of A Creekdipper" (Atlantic, 1998)
The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers "Zola And The Tulip Tree" (Creek, 1998)
Mark Olson & The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers "My Own Jo Ellen" (HighTone, 2000)
The gods must have smiled on the day that Jayhawks guitarist Mark Olson met his wife, the mousy voiced singer-songwriter, Victoria Williams. The two share a uniquely goofy world view, a whimsical, wide-eyed sense of wonder that encompasses the kind of hippie-ish love of gravel roads, thunderstorms and rainbows that fell out of fashion 'way back in the '70s. Their willful naivete comes across loud and clear on this beguiling, off-kilter ode to a nostalgic rural past. Looking through the eyes of a rambling pair of ten-year olds, the Creekdippers take us into the heart of a small desert community, where we meet weary farmers facing foreclosure, elderly agoraphobes learning to face the big world ouside, and dusty faced little kids who talk to god on rainy afternoons. Williams' oddball narrative style and Olson's knack for catchy country-rock refrains compliment each other perfectly, creating delicate songs that defy our most cynical leanings. Every time they begin to sound unbearably precious, something genuinely charming takes hold, tossing us back onto a cactus-strewn country road, where you whistle as you walk and the bees hum along. I love this record!
Victoria Williams "Water To Drink" (Atlantic, 2000)
Here Williams pursues a less rootsy muse, playing the unlikely role of a swanky pop-standards diva, amid lush, tightly-woven trip-hoppish arrangements (including some courtesy of Van Dyke Parks). Williams tackles the title track -- an old Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa nova standard -- with a bouncy lounge-y zeal; elsewhere she adopts a Rickie Lee Jones hipster scat style. It's towards the album's end, though, that the naifish Williams we know and love comes out -- on "Joy of Love," she croons out her hippie-dippy world view: "the joy of love/is a joy for all" ...and suddenly we're back back in the desert, skippin' on a moonbeam. This is a really nice record, sleekly produced, and a nice use of dense modern production... If you thought Williams was "just" a novelty performer, then check this record out... she does torch songs pretty well!
Mark Olson & The Creekdippers "December's Child" (Dualtone, 2002)
As odd and as brilliant as I thought their last album was, I have to say, Olson and Williams are really pushing it on this one. Here, the winsome hippie-isms of My Own Jo Ellen thicken into a more impenetrable, rock-oriented crustiness. What earlier seemed like an intriguing kookiness now appears to have become an insular private language, draped in thick jam-bandish alt.country rock. There are some familiar touches -- strange character sketches, celebration of nature -- but mostly it feels like the Creekdippers simply no longer care if the rest of the world "gets" what they're doing. Instead, they're just off on their own trip, and while there is a remote chance that a listener or two might also be on their wavelength, that's not really their point. Okay, sure, there's something to be said for super-personal artistic statements, but I can't shake the feeling that this album displays a little too much personal pride and creative hubris. A teeny, nagging voice inside suggests that I may be missing the point, but the rest of me says it's time to move onto something else that's easier to get into. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but I hope that the Creekdippers can come back to planet Earth sometime soon, and make a record that the rest of us can enjoy, too.
Victoria Williams "Sings Some Old Songs" (Dualtone, 2002)
She's certainly, um... audacious with her insistence of singing torch songs and jazz-vocal standards, what with that mousy, oddball voice of hers... But by sheer force of personality, Williams makes it work. You've never heard "Moon River," "As Time Goes By" and "Someone To Watch Over Me" done quite like this... (Well, I guess Rose Murphy may come close... ) She also reaffirms her love of Brazilian bossa standards with a nice version of "And Roses And Roses," an oldie but goodie by Dorival Caymmi. Again, non-fans may simply find themselves baffled by this kooky little outing; but the Williams true believers will love it.
Various Artists "SWEET RELIEF: A BENEFIT FOR VICTORIA WILLIAMS" (Sony, 1993)
When Victoria Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she found herself in that all-too-common position of many American artists: too broke to pay the medical bills, and no health insurance to make up the difference. But when you have friends and well-wishers such as Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet, Lucinda Williams, Pearl Jam and Giant Sand to help out with a benefit album, well... that's kind of nice. (Oh, and Mark Olson and the Jayhawks, too... let's not forget them.) Anyway, the songs are all written by Williams, which means they are idiosyncratic as can be, and often a bit difficult to cover, but there are plenty of magic moments. The results are variable, but certainly worth checking out.
Hick Music Index
Top photo courtesy of Dualtone Records. Used by permission.
Top photo courtesy of Dualtone Records. Used by permission.