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Victoria Williams 

Water to Drink
(Atlantic)

Even before she was diagnosed with the multiple sclerosis that has ravaged her body, Victoria Williams was fragile. The disease, discovered about eight years ago, has only accentuated all this. Or maybe we just think it has. Her first post-MS album, 1994's Loose -- which came a year after the Sweet Relief project honored her work as a singer-songwriter, with acts such as Pearl Jam and Soul Asylum covering her songs-- is an invigorating work about repression and acceptance. Subsequent albums, including the new Water to Drink, have expanded her musical muses and delved deeper into the heart of modern Americana. Working with an assortment of styles (swing, scat, torch, country, folk, etc.), Williams crafts Water to Drink as a tour through her attic of musical memoirs. It can be tedious -- her mumbled stumble through "Claude" is exasperating -- but just as often, it's stirring and beautiful. "Joy of Love," with its Stax-flavored horns and harmonies from husband (and ex-Jayhawk) Mark Olson, is as blissful as its title promises. And the closing "A Little Bit of Love" is a hopeful prayer wrapped in solemn packaging.

This is Williams' specialty. Beneath the frail exterior is a strong woman, one determined to keep fighting. The funeral horns that close "A Little Bit of Love" are misleading; Williams isn't conceding. This is a victory signal that everything's going to be all right. Even if the notion that love will help her through it all seems simple on the surface, Williams convincingly establishes that she's no naïf. Water to Drink is draped in the Southern mystique of her best work and is musically advanced beyond anything in her catalog.

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