Lucinda Williams


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Ramblin' , 4/10
Happy Woman Blues, 6.5/10
Lucinda Williams , 7/10
Sweet Old World , 6.5/10
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road , 6.5/10
Essence , 5/10
World Without Tears (2003), 6.5/10
West (2007), 4.5/10
Little Honey (2008) , 5/10
Blessed (2011), 5/10
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014), 6.5/10
The Ghosts of Highway 20 (2016), 5.5/10
Good Souls Better Angels (2020), 5/10
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Despite an endless series of troubles, Lucinda Williams (Louisiana-raised but based in Texas) has managed to craft a strong persona of progressive country-rocker and songwriter a` la Gram Parsons.

After an introductory collection of covers, Ramblin' On My Mind (Folkaways), Williams painted a humble fresco of southern female issues on Happy Woman Blues (Folkways, 1980), a loose mixture of bar ballads, rock riffs, square dances (I Lost It), catchy refrains (Maria, Hard Road). The album failed so badly that Williams did not re-enter a studio for nine years. In 1984 she moved to Los Angeles.

Lucinda Williams (Rought Trade, 1988) aligned her original blend of country, blues, cajun and gospel with the alternative rockers rather than the Nashville crowd. This album alone included more standards than most Nashville stars can use in an entire career: the jangling folk-rock of I Just Want To See You So Bad, the violin-drivenm, soulful Crescent City, the slow passionate singalong The Night's Too Long, the catchy tex-mex melody Big Red Sun Blues, the bluesy Changed the Locks, the poppy Passionate Kisses, the "Hawaian" lullaby Am I Too Blue, the stately hymn Side Of The Road.

Williams then took four more years to release Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1993), boasting her poppiest tune, Six Blocks Away, besides love songs such as Something About What Happens When We Talk, the thrilling Hot Blood, Lines Around Your Eyes, and the funereal elegies He Never Got Enough Love, Little Angel and Sweet Old World.

Several of her songs have been covered by artists such as Patty Loveless (The Night's Too Long), Tom Petty (Changed the Locks), Emmylou Harris (Crescent City). Lucinda Williams then relocated to Nashville and began the painstaking process of assembling Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998), only her fifth album in a twenty-year career. The raw, energetic, straight in your face, style of Drunken Angel and Metal Firecracker is at odds with her traditional austerity. The nostalgic vignettes of Jackson and Lake Charles, the plaintive blues Can't Let Go, the delicate romance of Right In Time, the lyrical elegy of Still I Long for Your Kiss and the philosophical stomp of Joy show middle-age issues leaking through the juvenile strength of the music.

After that artistic triumph, it is a surprise to listen to Williams' suddenly reborn voice on Essence (Lost Highway, 2001). Aided by guitarist Charlie Sexton, the 48-year old Williams has composed a concept album about the sore ending of her relationship with a long-time companion. But the sorrow and the anger are channeled mostly through pop songs like Out Of Touch and Lonely Girls, hardly the Williams who caused panic with Drunken Angel. Another surprise are the almost anti-feminist postures embedded in sensual, even lusty, ballads like Essence ("You're my drug/ come on and let me/ taste your stuff") and Are You Down. The quintessential Lucinda Williams returns for the intimate lullabies of I Envy The Wind, Blue and Broken Butterflies. But the memorable song here may well be Get Right With God, a stomping cajun hoedown that could shine on a Taj Mahal album.

Relocated to Los Angeles, Williams returned to a simpler, grittier format, but World Without Tears (Lost Highway, 2003) is the same mixed blessing as the previous two albums, except that the slow ballads now tend to take over the rave-ups, although the themes (sex) remain disturbing and illuminating. Most of her music "is" in the lyrics (which are great by Nashville standards, but amateurish by any other standard), and that, of course, is not a good sign for the music. At best (the bluesy, visceral, sinister Atonement) she sounds like Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young all in one, but most often those elements are scattered around, to be picked up from the agonizing Fruits of My Labor, the lyrical Ventura, the gritty Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings and (especially) the suicidal Those Three Days. She raps her way through intense vignettes such as American Dream, Sweet Side and Righteously and never indulges in the atmosphere, a sign of maturity if not of genius.

Poisoned by life, Williams collapsed (musically speaking) on West (2007), a lame collection of bad ideas, culminating with the nine-minute obnoxious rap of Wrap My Head Around That. The class of the veteran is almost completely missing, replaced by a clumsy pretense of adult songwriting that rarely coalesces into mildly entertaining musical storytelling (Unsuffer Me, Rescue, Are You Alright) but mostly misfires.

The gritty Little Honey (2008) showed the 55-year old cowgirl at the top of her act, even reenacting the verve of 1980s pub-rock with horns (Real Love, Honey Bee, Jailhouse Tears).

Blessed (Lost Highway, 2011) adopted a youthful garage-rock sound for Seeing Black and for the catchy, Tom Petty-esque Buttercup, but the rest is slow and intimate: the gentle angelic lullaby Copenhagen, the atmospheric elegy Soldier's Song, the Bob Dylan-esque Blessed, the melancholy singalong Ugly Truth, the organ-enhanced gospel-y Convince Me, etc.

Then came two double-disc albums. The 20-song Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20, 2014) show a much more aggressive singer, expanding her vocal technique towards both gospel shouting and melismatic jazz phrasing, backed by the Faces' keyboardist Ian McLagan and avant-guitarist Bill Frisell. The bare and mournfulCompassion, the solemn meditation of Temporary Nature Of Any Precious Thing, and the slow agonizing gospel Cold Day in Hell are pared with the gritty gospel-rock Protection, the quasi-funky Foolishness, the jazzy boogie Something Wicked This Way Comes (perhaps her best impersonation of a Chicago blueswoman), and the roaring blues of Everything But the Truth (how a sober Janis Joplin would have sounded). In between are melodic country ditties Walk on (one of the catchiest songs of her career) and Stowaway in Your Heart. A ten-minute version of JJ Cale's Magnolia features an epic duet between Frisell and fellow guitarist Greg Leisz. If Protection is a bit predictable, and Something Wicked This Way Comes is mainly a display of musicianship, at least Everything But the Truth and Walk on belong to her major canon.

The second double-disc album, the 14-song The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20, 2016), named after a stretch of freeway 20 that runs from Georgia to Texas, and again embellished with the guitars of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, is mostly inferior, half of it sounding like a collection of leftovers from the previous one. Given that there are only about a handful of good songs, but this should have been a mini-album: the catchy and driving country-blues Bitter Memory, the ghostly dirge Death Came, the anthemic ballad Dust, reminiscent of Joe Cocker's soul-rock of the 1970s, the waltzing Patsy Cline-esque country lullaby Place in My Heart, the hopelessly sorrowful If There's a Heaven (perhaps her best vocal performance here), and the martial soaring seven-minute Ghosts of Highway 20. The blues Doors of Heaven is mainly a showcase for the guitarists. The nine-minute recollection of Louisiana Story is a bit too spartan, with little other than the lyrics to justify its duration. The album ends with a hypnotic 12-minute version of the Staple Singers' Faith & Grace, another showcase of her vocal dexterity (as well as of Carlton "Santa" Davis' drumming).

She re-recorded her album Sweet Old World (1992) on This Sweet Old World (2017), changing the order of the songs and adding/removing a few.

Good Souls Better Angels (2020), co-produced by Ray Kennedy for the first time since 1998 and mostly co-written with her husband Tom Overby, is an angry, quasi-punk, album with incendiary songs like Man Without a Soul (dedicated to Donald Trump), Bone of Contention and Down Past the Bottom (written by Greg Garling). The raw blues You Can't Rule Me is a display of her vocal energy. However, the music doesn't always support the rage.

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