Last spring folk-rocker Williams was one of the estimated 37 million Americans without medical insurance often referred to by then candidate Bill Clinton. Out on tour, Williams became ill and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating nerve disease with no known cure. But Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t have to worry about this particular citizen’s medical bills, thanks to the musicians and record-industry folks who pulled together to help Williams and other uninsured players avoid financial ruin.
So far, so good. You may feel like a Good Samaritan when buying this album, but you’ll feel even better after listening to it. Sweet Relief, together with recent projects devoted to Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Charles Mingus, is proof that the tribute album can be a wonderful new pop-music form. Williams herself has a high, girlish, eccentric voice that can get between the listener and a song, but an interpretative grab bag like this one reveals what a fresh, poetic writer she is. And for the guest musicians, it can be liberating to momentarily escape the relentless requirement to create original songs.
That exhilaration is especially obvious in Lou Reed’s jaunty version of “Tarbelly and Featherfoot” and Pearl Jam’s majestic and surprisingly countrified take on “Crazy Mary.” But not one of the 14 tracks is a dud. Matthew Sweet does an ethereal take on the lovely “This Moment.” Lucinda Williams (no relation), Michelle Shocked and Maria McKee (on the bluesy title cut) are each splendid, letting the songs they do shine through the prism of their very personal styles. The rest of the lineup is a Who’s Who of alternative rock: Soul Asylum, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Giant Sand, the Jayhawks, Michael Penn, the Waterboys and others. All are first-rate. They’ve made an album that does good and sounds great. (Thirsty Ear/Chaos)