Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 22: Victoria Williams, "Crazy Mary"

Artist: Victoria Williams
Song: "Crazy Mary"
Album: Loose
Year: 1994

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It has been said that great art rarely comes from "normal, well adjusted" people, and this is especially true within music, as there almost always needs to be some sort of dysfunction or pain inside of the artist to create something truly amazing.  This is not to say that there are not some exceptions to this rule, but when one inspects the most moving and beautiful songs ever recorded, it can be argued as a necessary element.  While this does not necessarily mean some sort of dramatic issue within, it is often the honest, if not quirky visionaries that create the truly deep and powerful moments in music history, and this has certainly been the case with the career of Victoria Williams.  Though she is perhaps better known as a songwriter than a performer, it is her distinctive sound and lyrics that have turned her into a cult-hero in the eyes of many.  Fusing together country and folk music in a completely unique manner, her albums define "Americana" in a style that no other artist has been able to capture, and it is often the vivid images of "real" life that she paints which become so captivating.  The fact that Victoria Williams has been able to release so many stunning records and still live largely under the radar is one of the great travesties of modern music, and her 1994 album, Loose, is the pinnacle of this injustice.  Without question one of the most brutally honest and absolutely beautiful records ever recorded, there is perhaps no better a definition of Victoria Williams than what one can experinece on her 1994 song, "Crazy Mary."

Even from the earliest moments on "Crazy Mary," the various musical inspirations that Victoria Williams draws from become quite apparent, and it is the juxtaposition between these sounds that makes the song so unique.  The sparse guitar progression that opens the song has a distinctive beauty within the haunting, almost pained notes, and this sets much of the tone for the entire song.  It is the way in which one can picture the song being played on a dreary porch in the middle of nowhere that gives "Crazy Mary" its depth even without the lyrics, and it is this ability to convey such imagery that sets Victoria Williams so far apart from her peers.  As the rest of the players join the fray, "Crazy Mary" gains a breadth that has rarely been achieved within music, as she is able to incorporate a large number of instruments whilst still keeping the overall sound rather small and compact.  Even when there is a full string section working behind Williams' voice, the song never seems overdone, and it is the balance found throughout "Crazy Mary" that makes it such a uniquely beautiful accomplishment.  It is also the way in which the strings seem to push the mood of the guitar as the tension builds during the center section of the song that shows how perfectly one can blend these sounds together without damaging such a delicate musical landscape.  Furthermore, the fact that the sound of "Crazy Mary" was so far from the mainstream of the time, yet manages to fit in perfectly at the same time is a testament to what a special song Victoria Williams created.

Along with her completely distinctive way of arranging songs, Victoria Williams also possesses one of the most recognizable voices in music, and there is a certain raw honestly that comes through in her singing.  Easily working the entire vocal spectrum, Williams is able to convey emotions simply by changing the pitch of her voice, and it is also the slightest changes that become truly captivating.  There is an almost "down home" feel within her unique voice, and it is the way in which her singing is so inviting and welcoming that makes her songs so wonderful.  There are many points where one can picture her singing on that porch, simply watching life go by and writing about the honest and almost mundane things that she observes.  Yet, there is a darkness within many of her songs, and it is these almost tragically beautiful characters that one can never forget.  It is the way in which she is able to build such strong connections to her characters and bring the listener along where one can understand the complete ability of her vocals, and one can also sense a certain proximity to the images that she creates.  In the case of "Crazy Mary," Williams has crafted one of her most melancholy characters, and there is an almost gut-wrenching overtone to the entire existence of "Mary."  The innocence with which the character is observed shows the true humanity of Williams, as there is never a judgment passed on this social outcast, simply a portrait painted.  It is the way that Victoria Williams is able to make every listener look deep into themselves through songs like "Crazy Mary" that are a testament to her unique genius, and it remains one of only a few songs in history that can be heard countless times and never lose any impact.

Though the mainstream did not pay much attention to the release of Loose, many of the peers of Victoria Williams certainly did, and the album remains one of the lesser known gems of the entire 1990's.  "Crazy Mary" specifically has risen to a very special status of a song, and it is one which "those in the know" hold very dear to their hearts.  This was largely due to Pearl Jam incorporating their own take on the song into their live performances, and Williams has appeared with the band a handful of times on stage to perform the song.  The song took yet another breathtaking turn when Williams recorded an acoustic version alongside none other than Lou Reed on MTV's 120 Minutes, and this is without question one of the most stunning moments ever captured on tape.  At moments, the level of pain and tragedy within the story are even more powerful than on Williams' original, and the fact that Reed took part in the song is a testament to how highly regarded Williams remains among her peers.  The way that Williams has taken a figure within society that can be applied to any number of other people and make the listener look inside themselves can rarely be found on any other song in history, and the fact that she is able to make the listener judge themselves without implying such is perhaps the true genius of her talents.  From the absolutely beautiful, yet fragile musical arrangement to the unforgettable lyrics, Victoria Williams' 1994 song, "Crazy Mary" is truly one which knows no peers and must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.


Anonymous said...

just curious about something. why does this article claim its acoustic if 3 guitars in the clip are playing electric guitars? the video is actually on youtube and u can hear electric guitars in the audio anyway. just wondering.

AmandaCosta said...

Hello from Brazil!
First time here and loved your blog.