There are over 130,000 people in the UK who have multiple sclerosis (MS). In the USA, there are nearly one million people who suffer from this debilitating disease. Sufferers of MS have damaged nerve cells in the brain or spinal cord, which means that the nervous system is unable to accurately transmit signals to other parts of the body. There are two forms of MS. In the relapsing form, symptoms may disappear between attacks whereas anyone with progressive MS notices that their symptoms become gradually more noticeable over time. Typical symptoms include tingling, pins and needles, numbness, muscle weakness, blurred vision, tiredness, a weak bladder, double vision and difficulty in moving, coordination and balance with an increased risk of falling.
Victoria Williams was born in Louisiana in 1958. After she released her first two solo albums (“Happy Come Home” in 1987 and “Swing The Statue” in 1990) she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She did not have health insurance and so an impressive array of artists volunteered their talent to record a benefit album for her, called “Sweet Relief”, named after one of her songs. This led to the establishment of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a charity that aids professional musicians in need of health care. A second album, “Sweet Relief II” was recorded in 1996 in which the songs of Vic Chestnutt were recorded by a similarly wide ranging array of artists, with the proceeds being donated to the same fund.
After The Jayhawks recorded a song for the first “Sweet Relief” album, their lead singer, Mark Olson, left the band, married Victoria Williams and together they formed The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, releasing seven albums. Their marriage lasted until 2005. Victoria Williams has now released eight solo albums. She is still making music although numbness in her hands make playing the guitar difficult.
The standout track on the album, in my opinion, is “This Moment” by Matthew Sweet. At the time of recording, he had released four albums, including the wonderful “Altered Beast” which features dirty electric guitar from Robert Quine (who had played with Richard Hell’s backing group, The Voidoids) and Richard Lloyd (who had formed television with Tom Verlaine). However, the feeling on “This Moment” is much gentler with seven different guitar instruments played by Matthew Sweet and Greg Leisz (along with Matt Wallace playing drum loops).
Greg Leisz has played on numerous albums. including Altered Beast by Matthew Sweet, Torn Again by Peter Case, Ingenue by k.d. lang, Standing In The Breach by Jackson Browne, Soul Journey by Gillian Welch, Monovision by Ray Lamontagne, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen and Downhill From Everywhere by Jackson Browne.
“This Moment” has a hypnotic quality with a horizontal melody that perfectly suits Matthew Sweet’s soothing voice. The instrumentation includes a sound that initially sounds like a fiddle but is an echo drenched pedal steel guitar played by Greg Leisz. I can’t actually get enough of this song and would happily listen to it on repeat for an hour or more.
Every song here was included on her first two albums with the exception of “Crazy Mary” and “This Moment” which would appear on later albums.
The lineup of “Sweet Relief” contains a multitude of well known and superb musicians including Soul Asylum, who are a grunge band from Seattle. They have been active since 1981 and their version of “Summer Of Drugs” is surprisingly tuneful and enchanting.
Pearl Jam are also a grunge band from Seattle, formed in 1990. Eddie Vedder has an excellent voice and his performance “Crazy Mary” reminds me of a song called “The Long Road” which he recorded with Nasret Fateh Ali Khan and released on the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack. Both “Crazy Mary” and “The Long Road” are a long way from the uncompromising hard edged sound that Pearl Jam liked to use on most of their songs.
“Dead Man Walking” is a brilliant film, starring Sean Penn, who plays a man on death row, and Susan Sarandon, who plays a spiritual advisor. Sean Penn’s brother is Michael Penn, who had a Top 40 hit with “No Myth” in 1989. His version of “Weeds” on “Sweet Relief” is haunting, weird and lovely.
Lucinda Williams had just released “Sweet Old World” when “Sweet Relief” was recorded. Her version of “Main Road” features the great Gurf Morlix on lead guitar. Her accentuated Southern twang had yet to be developed at the time of this recording.
Lou Reed appears on the album and he sings a song called “Tarbelly And Featherfoot”. That’s not an accurate sentence. Did Lou Reed ever really sing, or just talk melodically? This is a seriously peculiar song concerning two lovers having a dispute, which is resolved when Featherfoot takes Tarbelly by the ribs, swings her round and lets her fly away.
The title song, “Sweet Relief” is sung by Maria McKee, four years after her sensational debut album. Benmont Tench plays piano, Adam Duritz (of Counting Crows) sings backing vocals and Maria McKee is on fire, displaying her incredible voice which simultaneously showcases her ferocity and tenderness.
Quite how The Waterboys ended up making a contribution to this album is a mystery to me. Every other act was from the U.S.A. but I guess the man who was unafraid to march into quiet Irish pub, playing a 12 string guitar, singing at the top of his voice and disturbing the locals’ quiet supping of Guinness, wasn’t shy about offering his services here. “Why Look At The Moon” is a bit overblown but typically intense and earnest.
The Jayhawks’ greatest album, “Hollywood Town Hall” was released in 1992 and, as stated earlier, the meeting between Mark Olson and Victoria Williams, when the album was made, precipitated him leaving the band. His vocals on “Lights” are typically emotional and the trademark harmonies with Gary Louris (who plays a wonderful electric guitar solo) were sadly missing on all subsequent Jayhawks albums.
The John Hopkins website states that “Depression can occur in up to 50% of MS patients and is three times more common than in the general population. Up to 40% of support partners, such as caregivers and spouses, may also experience depression at some point in life. Household role changes and financial concerns, as well as depression and cognitive symptoms in the person with MS, are all factors that may contribute to caregiver distress.“