Like Music For Ears

If you believe everything you read about the music industry, your mental picture of the Big Five probably resembles a circle of hell. Clearly, major labels must be staffed by legions of Satan's underlings, all cackling with glee and rubbing cash-dirty hands together whilst plotting to rob musicians and plan the next lawsuit against this week's MP3-swapping Web site.

That dark vision may be true. But, then, how do you explain Victoria Williams? Her recording career dates back to 1987 (the wonderful Happy Come Home on Geffen), and she's been on major label Atlantic since 1995. True, she's never gotten much radio play — her voice is, admittedly, an acquired taste, often resembling a wildly upbeat Munchkin from one of the smaller towns in Oz (luckily, Eminem probably has never heard of her). But she is undeniably a unique artist who writes charming, oddly affecting ditties about everything from hound dogs to dead friends to nutty old women — and makes you happy and grateful for the privilege of being allowed to listen in. She is, as they say, the real deal.

Water To Drink is Williams' follow-up to a trio of self-released albums from the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, her side project with husband/former Jayhawk Mark Olson. It's a more lushly produced recording of much of her previous work, but she's still as quirky and irrepressibly charming as ever. "Grandma's Hat Pin" (RealAudio excerpt), for example, is by turns lilting and uplifting, floating you along a fast-moving river like an inner tube caught in the current as Williams weaves a tale of forgiveness and redemption.

Storytelling is one of this singer/songwriter's great gifts, as evidenced by the lilting "Gladys and Lucy," which conveys a world of information in short verses. "Gladys is packing, Chicago-bound/ Lucy is a'staying in bad L.A. town/ She never learned to drive/ How will she survive?" But beyond her gift for wordplay, this album, recorded by Williams primarily in her home studio, shows her stretching not only her idiosyncratic voice but also her entire musical approach into surprising new territory.

Williams' double-edged folksiness is tempered here by some sophisticated jazzy bursts, including a foray into bossa nova (the smoothly groovy title track [RealAudio excerpt] is an Anglicized cover of João Gilberto's "Agua de Beber"); there's even a hint of funk ("Junk" [RealAudio excerpt]).

While she's still a big believer in the power of love and affirmation (see the joyous "You Can Be" and the nearly too warm sentiment of "Joy of Love"), Victoria Williams has the kind of sincerity that's rare to find in the real world — let alone the music business of the new millennium. So long as she's getting paid to write and record stuff this good, at least we know something's working the way it should.