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Acts of Love and Other Stories : The eccentric portraits in Victoria Williams' songs can't help but reflect the hard times, simple kindness and enduring faith she's known the last few years. It's like nothing else in pop music.

October 23, 1994|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

' Over here!" calls out Victoria Williams' in her unmistakably high-pitched twang, from somewhere mysterious in the vicinity of her smallish Laurel Canyon home. Her voice is coming from next door, but with all possible entrances to her neighbor's house locked, and an eight-foot wooden fence in between, Williams' fetching Lousiana accent seems destined to remain disembodied for the moment.

Finally she yells over instructions on how to find the hole in the fence, which turns out to be easy enough to stoop through, give or take a couple of vines. Next door, Williams is swimming laps in a pool, as her neighbor has allowed her to do every day for the last three weeks or so. The semi-secret passage was already there before this arrangement was struck.

"I'm so fortunate to have this. I think these people who built these two houses were friends, because they made this gap in the fence," Williams says as she skims sideways across the pool, seeming as pleased as a kid who's happened across somebody else's fort in the forest.

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These nearly inconsequential little acts of friendship--present and presumably past--are the sort that mean a lot to Williams, 36, a singer-songwriter who seems to feed on decent gestures and enduring spirits as sweet grist for her strikingly warm and hopeful music. Rendered in Williams' unique voice, the milk of human kindness is not at all milquetoast, but the wonderful stuff of eccentric forbearance.

Truest love is both a quirky and eternal thing in "Loose," Williams' engaging third album, which combines some of the weird little narratives we're trained to expect from a conventionally twisted Southern writer with a gospel singer's faith in human as well as divine nature.

Here there are odes to friendship itself ("My Ally," a duet with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner), offbeat eulogies for late friends ("Happy to Have Known Pappy," "Harry Went to Heaven"), songs about old folks who find renewal and purpose late in life ("Century Plant"), and straight-ahead rock 'n' roll spirituals ("You R Loved"). It's like nothing else in pop, of course. ( See review, Page 74.)

Williams once toured with Jonathan Richman, and it's easy to see why they'd make a natural pairing. The difference is that Williams is not such the deliberate naif , but brings a guilelessness to subject matter that tends toward the more mature.

Paul Fox, the new album's producer, said in a separate interview that Williams "does have that combination of the childlike innocence and the wise sage rolled up into one. She's incredibly sweet, and might appear to be naive, but she's certainly not. She appreciates every little detail of everything that's going on around her at all times, and she's not just what you see on the surface. She couldn't write songs like that if she didn't see things in such deep, meaningful ways.

"But whenever she would approach anything she would approach it with complete, childlike enthusiasm," said Fox. "Especially given her new physical situation, it was just incredibly inspiring to see someone with such a positive attitude."

Out here today, Williams is not exercising merely for the fun of it but swimming, she believes, for her life.

"I've always been a person who loves to swim," she says--as a child, she plied the Cane River, near her hometown of Shreveport--"but then, when that thing came around, everybody said swimming's the best exercise."

The "thing" was multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in early 1992 after she had some trouble with her hands while on tour opening for Neil Young. Having developed an understandable interest in holistic health, she's read up on the benefits of water exercise for relieving the stress that makes symptoms worse.

"There was a study done with this doctor who was ahead of his time back in the '40s, with all these people that had that MS," she says, standing upright in the pool, "and he had people on this high-vitamin swimming diet. And the people that were in his group were all still alive in like '75, and the ones that weren't doing the swimming every day all were dead by the time of the '60s. And they never include that in the AMA stuff; they just want people to be sick." And it's back to the breast stroke.

This last comment is about as bitter as Williams seems to get. Asked if, as a longtime devout Christian, she found the onset of her malady faith-testing, she insists that it was instead "strengthening, faith- strengthening . Trials are a blessing that are given to a person to endure and become strong, even if they seem like something bad.

"It puts me more in a position of leaning on God. Which is a good position to be in."

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