The cover of 12, which depicts jam-rock hero Keller Williams as a boxer (except he’s barefoot, in a nod to his target audience), is telling. A ring girl that looks suspiciously like Britney Spears in her VMA getup stands in front of him with a placard indicating the twelfth round. There is significance in the pugilistic and numeric imagery, because 12 includes one song each from Williams’s first eleven albums plus one previously unreleased track. Though Williams stops short of calling this a greatest-hits package, the collection serves as a celebration of both his artistic growth and his unexpected longevity in an industry that stomps out the kind of idiosyncrasy upon which he has founded his musical career.
While Williams’s melodic jams are easily identifiable as belonging to the neo-hippie jam movement, that he creates most of his compositions solo gives him added cachet — he’s the J. Mascis of the Bonnaroo set. In addition, many of the songs on 12 (like the incomparably titled “Butt Sweat”) evidence a playful lyricism often lost in the search of a tasty groove. Williams will never be mistaken for Bob Dylan with respect to content or delivery, but it’s nice to see a little wordplay to go along with the extended guitar solos. (The album also features a heaping helping of well-played guitar licks influenced by jazz, bluegrass, and the looming presence of a certain band from San Francisco.)
But one either has the granola-and-Hacky Sack gene or not; there often is no middle ground. Given that most of Williams’s serious fans have eight different bootlegs of these songs and might even own some of the studio albums, 12 is a comprehensive collection for the casual fan wanting a festival souvenir.