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July 18, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN


"Sweet Relief--A Benefit for Victoria Williams"

Thirsty Ear/Chaos/Columbia

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In a musical world of irascibility and irony run rampant, Victoria Williams herself is definitely "sweet relief"--a fetching Louisiana expatriate plopped incongruously down in L.A., where her clever, humble, spiritual, rural folk tunes take on the air of exotic reportage from another world.

This compilation (both a tribute to and benefit for Williams, who is battling multiple sclerosis) relies on the homage of mostly "alternative" acts. And, while the sweetness and Southern-scene specificity of her songwriting don't always survive the postmodernism of some of the bands involved, the album remains a consistently nifty salute to a spirit that defies easy interpretation.

The best treatments come from Soul Asylum, a group tailor-ready for the '70s memoir "Summer of Drugs," and Maria McKee, who makes "Opelousas" a gospel-rock breath of fresh air. Those who likewise play it straightest fare best, like Lucinda Williams, Matthew Sweet and the Jayhawks. Others, including Lou Reed, Michael Penn and the Waterboys, dare to take on her quirkier narrative material, with less reliable but usually winning results.

Given that most of the people who will buy this album have never heard Williams before, "Sweet Relief" would only be sweeter if the producers had included a cut by the honoree herself, who only pops up here singing backup on Pearl Jam's nicely understated "Crazy Mary."

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