Long before she was a revered cult artist who even gained some significant mainstream sales, Lucinda was a struggling folkie whose first two albums didn’t make much of an impact. No, 1988’s Lucinda Williams was not her debut album, it only seemed that way since it was such an advancement over her first two albums, which are still worth discovering for later fans. If nothing else, this album is fascinating if only because it’s so different from her later albums, as Lucinda sings 14 old acoustic folk (or folk blues) songs with minimal accompaniment. Guitarist John Grimaudo helps out, but by and large this all covers album (aside from “Disgusted,” which she still didn’t write) is a showcase for Lucinda’s vocals and acoustic guitar playing. She acquits herself fairly well for the most part, as solid pickin’ highlights songs such as “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “Stop Breaking Down” (one of three Robert Johnson songs), and she was a strong singer right from the start, though truth be told her voice lacks the confidence and world-weary character of her later releases. Given how accomplished her songwriting later became, it’s almost like this Lucinda is a different artist than the one we’ve (or at least I’ve) come to know and love, but that still doesn’t stop me from enjoying pretty songs such as “Little Darlin’ Pal Of Mine” and “Satisfied Mind,” or more upbeat fare like “Jug Band Music,” “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor,” and “Jumbalaya (On The Bayou).” That said, there sure isn’t much in the way of variety, and the album comes off as a solid genre exercise more than anything else; there’s a reason that Lucinda didn’t stand out from the pack until she started to flesh out her sound and pen her own original material. Indeed, how much you enjoy this album may come down to how familiar you are with the original versions of these songs, as most of them are quite old and have also been recorded by other artists over the years.
Happy Woman Blues (Smithsonian Folkways ‘80) Rating: B
Lucinda’s most country album by far, apparently this was a quickie album that was a bit rushed (this was before she became a notorious perfectionist), but it nevertheless possesses a disarming down-home charm. This time she writes all the songs in a full band setup, with fiddles, slide, and pedal steel guitar being featured prominently. “I Lost It,” the album’s catchiest and most instantly memorable song, would later be redone on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, but there are other strong entries as well, even if the recording quality is a bit rough around the edges and the album on the whole lacks her later sophistication. It is a significant step up from Ramblin’, though, as the boozy title track and the twangy “Rolling Along” feature good guitar work, while the up-tempo “Louisiana Man” makes me wanna get up and do-si-do. OK, that might be pushing it, I was just trying to make a point how utterly country much of this album is, though “King Of Hearts,” “One Night Stand,” and "Sharp Cutting Wings (Song To A Poet)" are more like the type of bummed out ballads that she specializes in now. A few songs are boring or don’t make much of an impression, and more than anything the album now seems more like a solid first step towards even better offerings than a completely successful venture in its own right. On the plus side, the album is a very manageable 35 minutes, and though she was still feeling her way, even then Lucinda had a lot of heart and an honest sincerity that shined through. Believe me, not many women were making traditional old time music back in 1980 (or today for that matter), and Happy Woman Blues is an enjoyable album, even if in the grand scheme of things it’s but a minor effort from a major talent.
Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade ‘88) Rating: A
Not many artists receive rave reviews across the board like Lucinda Williams, though she’s still largely unknown to the public at large. I first read about Lucinda Williams, her first album in eight years, in the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, which placed it as one of the 100 greatest “alternative” albums of all-time (what makes it “alternative” I don’t know, but its placing made me take notice). Robert Christgau also raved about it, as did the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide, so I decided to check it out for myself (but only after enjoying Car Wheels On A Gravel Road). And at first I have to admit that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Don't get me wrong, I instantly loved Lucinda’s voice, which is pretty but in a rough, imperfect way, and her lyrics, which cleverly dissect relationships in a direct, easy to follow manner ("Side Of The Road" is a real gem). But I found the Springsteen-influenced music, which I suppose could be called roots rock, to be overly simplistic and unremarkable, with only “Passionate Kisses” (later a hit for Mary Chapin-Carpenter) delivering much in the way of instantly identifiable hooks. However, repeat listens reveal this album to be much more than it originally seems. For one thing, I like the mix of electric and acoustic guitars, and many of these songs have an enticing detail here and there - a jaunty accordion or moody fiddle here, a twangy pedal steel guitar there, bright keyboards and nice low-key male backing harmonies on several songs - to set them apart. Lucinda particularly excels on ballads such as “The Night's Too Long,” “Abandoned,” “Like A Rose,” “Am I Too Blue,” and “Side Of The Road,” while more upbeat songs like “I Just Want To See You So Bad,” “Big Red Sun Blues,” and “Crescent City” boast a deceptive catchiness that's only revealed after repeat listens. On the downside, I don't care for "Changed the Locks," and the album's lone cover, "I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)," is also less than essential. Still, these raw, bluesy efforts at least provide some needed balance to the album, which is pretty close to perfect on the whole. This music may seem a bit generic at first glance, but after awhile it just seems simple, subtly catchy, and timeless.
Sweet Old World (Chameleon '92) Rating: A-
After another lengthy hiatus Lucinda returned with Sweet Old World, another album that seems unremarkable at first but gets better the more you get to know it. Actually, I'd argue that the music on this less critically acclaimed album is only a hair less impressive than on Lucinda Williams, and again many enjoyable moments are due to Lucinda's attention to detail, with the memorably named Gurf Morlix (electric and acoustic guitar, pedal steel, dobro, mandolin, lap steel, beer bottle and background vocals) providing many of the more notable musical moments. Lucinda's story-based lyrics are again simple but effective, but knowledge of a friend's suicide (poet Frank Stanford) makes these sad stories hit especially close to home. "Sweet Old World" (later wonderfully covered by Emmylou Harris) is so devastatingly sad and beautiful that it damn near made me cry the first time I heard it (and almost every time thereafter too!), while "Little Angel, Little Brother" is another memorable tearjerker. Elsewhere, "Something About What Happens When We Talk" is a soulful ballad and "He Never Got Enough Love" delivers catchy mid-tempo rock, while suicide is again the main theme of "Pineola," whose vivid lyrics are aided by terrific fiddle and guitar playing. By and large, the ballads here are considerably better than the rockers, but most of Sweet Old World smartly concentrates on mellower material. It's patchier than the previous album, but some of these lyrics are simply stunning (for example: "Back in Memphis she was a pearl, She was everyone's favorite girl, Now her eyes have a vacant stare, What she wouldn't give to be livin' back there"), and the album fittingly ends with a wholly appropriate cover of Nick Drake's "Which Will," which provides a sad and beautiful ending to an often sad and beautiful album.
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury ’98) Rating: A+
Finally releasing this much-delayed album after a long six-year recording absence, during which she changed record labels and several producers while re-recording the album twice from scratch, expectations ran high for Lucinda Williams. But the sexy, intimate beauty of “Right In Time” immediately announced that Lucinda was back and better than ever, and the album went on to be ecstatically received by critics, winning several prestigious year-end polls. The title track, which seems pretty plain at first but which gets better and better (by now a Lucinda trademark), vividly details the album’s central themes of travel and moving on, often without that someone special. “Joy” and “Jackson” are other “road songs,” but whereas the title track recounts childhood experiences (I read that her dad apologized to her once after seeing her sing the song in concert), these songs, the first a folksy sing along and the latter a sparse blues, are decidedly adult in the way they angrily look back - while looking forward - at lost loves. Elsewhere, death is again prominent on timeless sounding songs such as “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” “Drunken Angel,” and “Lake Charles,” while “Can’t Let Go” (“I know it's over but I can’t let go”), “Metal Firecracker (“all I ask, is don’t tell anybody the secrets, I told you”), and “Still I Long For Your Kiss” (self-explanatory) show off Lucinda’s vulnerable side, accompanied by a brisk groove (the first one) and sexily swaying melodies (the latter two), respectively. Yet perhaps I would’ve been better off not naming individual songs, for this is a cohesive album that maintains a remarkable consistency throughout. Amazingly, given how fussed over this album was, it sounds more immediate and spontaneous than previous efforts, and her rich merging of country (I suspect that the twang in her voice will always keep her a cult artist), folk, blues, pop, and rock always holds together exceptionally well. Musically, helped along by an excellent backing band and guest support from the likes of Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Roy Bittan, Lucinda knows when and where to insert well-placed accordions, mandolins, pedal steel guitars, dobros, and such, and she continues to honestly, subtly, and insightfully write about relationships and everyday situations in an easy to relate to manner (especially if you’re from the South). In this day of bloodless r&b, teenybopper chart toppers, bland “alternatives,” overproduced electronic music, and over-emoting Gen Xer’s, a down to earth album played with real instruments and delivered with heartfelt emotions came as a revelation to many. After all, Bob Dylan and Neil Young never needed much more, and the album lives up to its lofty press clippings by serving up simple but extremely satisfying songs.
Essence (Lost Highway ’01) Rating: A-
Released a “mere” three years later, Essence sees Lucinda easing up on her perfectionist tendencies, with the end result being another fine if flawed album that’s well worth getting to know. Opting for a direct, emotional approach, Lucinda’s lyrics aren’t quite as finely chiseled as in the past, as she instead elects to simply put her bare emotions “out there.” Fortunately, her fragile voice remains an incredibly resonant instrument, and her emotionally affecting vocals fit these stripped-down songs, most of which are sad but beautiful ballads. As usual, her band is impressive, and there’s lots of good if low-key guitar (Gurf again); in fact, songs such as “Are You Down” and “Broken Butterflies” are less about Lucinda’s songwriting than the bluesy band interplay and hazy late night atmospherics, respectively. Granted, the twangy rocker (“Get Right With God”) and a pair of s-l-o-o-w, dreary ballads (“I Envy The Wind,” “Bus To Baton Rouge”) sound like filler to me, but at least in vastly different ways, unlike the rest of the album, which, aside from the comparatively rocking title track, all share similarly laid-back moods. Still, when songs are as lovely as “Lonely Girls,” “Steal Your Love,” “Blue,” “Out Of Touch,” and “Reason To Cry” it seems nitpicky to complain too much about a lack of variety. This album may be an inevitable comedown after the career peak that was Car Wheels, and perhaps Lucinda relies too heavily on slow building, overly long and repetitive mantras to make her point. But her yearning vocals still get to me big time, and by and large Essence works as a beautiful downer of an album.
World Without Tears (Lost Highway ’03) Rating: A-
All of a sudden Lucinda is almost prolific, probably because she has a lot to say. What she has to say most likely won't please him (you know who you are), but Lucinda is nothing if not honest, and these highly personal songs are among her most emotionally open and direct ever. Indeed, this is an angry album by a bitter middle-aged woman who has been scorned once too often, but this album's saving grace is that it's a musically rich and varied album as well. As usual, she excels on ballads such as "Fruits Of My Labor," "Over Time," "Minneapolis," and "World Without Tears," which I'd describe as "late night torch songs with a country slant" and which are helped along by Lucinda's mature, weathered voice, which is still an instrument of aching beauty. There are some good rockers this time out as well, especially "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings," while excellent guitar playing (with Gurf gone, Doug Pettibone handles the duties this time) on songs as vastly different as "Atonement," a grungy stomper, and "People Talkin'," with its pretty ringing guitars, has become as much a staple of her albums as her terrific singing and songwriting. The latter song and "Sweet Side" are pledges of devotion, probably to a man who doesn't deserve it, but it is "Minneapolis" that best encapsulates this album. When she sings "I've been waiting for you to come back" it's clear that he's not coming back, and when she spits out "I wish I'd never seen your face or heard your voice" I can't help but wince. You see, Lucinda has always struck me as one tough woman, but here and elsewhere she almost sounds defeated, which can make for an at-times uncomfortable listen. Still, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be greatly moved by the likes of "Over Time" and “Those Three Days,” whose catchy, easily singable yet evocative mid-tempo melody instantly grabbed me. The album isn’t perfect: there aren't as many instantly hummable melodies as on her very best albums, several songs are distractingly reverb-drenched, and Lucinda tries out some new vocal deliveries that don’t work especially well. Lucinda’s almost rap-like verses on “Sweet Side” and “American Dream” makes me think that maybe she’s been listening to too much Beck, and I’m less than thrilled with her over-accented vocals on “Righteously” and her obnoxious exhortations on “Atonement” as well. However, the fact that those are still good songs with other virtues, such as the singable chorus on “Sweet Side,” the righteously loud guitars on “Righteously,” and the memorably murky late-night mood on "American Dream," merely makes these vocal imperfections minor flaws within an overall work that is still remarkably strong. Perhaps this 13-track collection would've benefited from being a bit shorter, especially given how intense and draining it is, but it was good to see Lucinda stylistically stretching out again after the often-superb but musically unambitious Essence, and there are some really strong songs on this album, which was another winner from one of the best in the business.
West (Lost Highway ’07) Rating: B
After a solidly entertaining yet nevertheless disappointing double-live album, Live At The Fillmore, which concentrated way too much on Essence and World Without Tears material (18 of its 22 songs originated from those two albums), comes the also-disappointing West, which has received mixed reviews, a rarity for Williams. This album is a sequel of sorts to Essence in the way that it concentrates mostly on mellow material and is flat-out depressing, being as it is inspired by her mother's death (addressed directly on "Mama Yo Sweet" and "Fancy Funeral") and the death of a romantic relationship (addressed directly on almost every other song). But though this album has some of the previous albums strengths, it has a lot more weaknesses. For one thing, West is stretched out to almost 70 minutes, which is way too long given how one-note it is. Also, the few variations from the norm here seem out of place, most notably "Come On," a vitriolic rocker that sticks around long after it's made its point (though the closing guitar solo salvages it), and "Wrap My Head Around That," a bluesy spoken-word number that drones on for nine excruciating minutes. Elsewhere, "What If" has silly idyllic lyrics accompanied by a melody that's too much like Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer," and throughout the album Lucinda sounds lethargic, almost as if she's been beaten down by her own blues. Overly repetitive melodies that stretch out for too long present another recurring weakness, but given that this is a Lucinda Williams album, obviously it's going to have some good things going for it as well. For one thing there's the stripped-down sound; co-produced by Hal Willner, the album has a warmly inviting yet dark late-night mood reminiscent of Daniel Lanois. In addition to this being Lucinda's moodiest album, there are some strong songs, including instantly appealing tracks such as "Are You Alright" (one of her best songs ever), "Learning How To Live," "Everything Has Changed," "Words," and "West," which smartly ends the album on an optimistic note after all the preceding doom and gloom. The rest of the album, aside from "Unsuffer Me," a haunted blues on which the guitars are actually plugged in, tends to blend together for me, and though the album has its strengths both sound-wise and lyric-wise (though less in the latter department than usual), and of course her voice remains an ache-filled wonder, by and large my impression is that we've been down this road before, and that it was better the first time.
Little Honey (Lost Highway ’09) Rating: B+
Apparently good things come to those who wait, as Little Honey became Lucinda Williams' first top 10 album. She recently got engaged, too, so things are looking up, and as such it's fitting that several of this album's songs ("Real Love," "Tears Of Joy," and "Honey Bee" off the top of my head) are actually happy, having been inspired by that relationship with co-producer Tom Overby. That said, several of these songs were actually leftovers from the West sessions, while others were older songs revisited, so it's not surprising that most of the songs here veer into more troubled waters, much like in the past. The contrast is actually quite interesting and gives the album some needed variety after the one-note West, and it helps that there are some new musical wrinkles as well, such as multiple guest vocalists (Elvis Costello, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, Jim Lauderdale, Charlie Louvin') and the occasional integration of horns ("Knowing," "Rarity"). As usual, Lucinda always gives her backing band room to shine, and they impress throughout, particularly guitarist Doug Pettibone. As for the actual songs, I suppose that the quality control could've been better, but there are quite a few first-rate songs as well. For example, "Real Love" is a catchy country rocker with Stonesy guitars and Sweet and Hoff lending enticing backing vocals, as they do on several songs here. "Circles and X's" is a soulful country ballad with moody keyboards and bluesy guitars, the latter of which are also present on "Tears Of Joy," which is also notable for its gospel-tinged backing vocals and its aforementioned upbeat sentiments. Inspired by an article about Pete Doherty, "Little Rock Star" is an epic, empathetic big ballad on which the guitars absolutely soar and Sweet and Hoffs again lend a helping hand, and "Honey Bee" continues with a loud rocker with appealingly raunchy guitars. "Well Well Well" is a sparse country blues with a good slinky groove and more enticing backing vocals (this time supplied by Lauderdale and Louvin'), while "If Wishes Were Horses" is a slow, affecting ballad in her best style. True, the twangy, affected country delivery of her vocals isn't for everyone, but when she nails it like on this ballad she moves me like few others. "Jailhouse Tears" is a rare duet from Lucinda on which she basically insults Elvis Costello throughout (sweet memories of Shane and Kirsty on “Fairytale Of New York”); though I enjoy it I wouldn't exactly call it a major effort, and the quality then dips dramatically with several sparse ballads that are quite listenable but pretty boring, especially when sequenced together, plus there's a cover of AC/DC's "It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)" that's extremely surprising but also pretty pointless given its inferiority to the incredible original. Still, despite being somewhat undermined by this questionable cover selection and several underwritten and overly long ("Rarity" doesn't have much of a melody and compounds that by being 9-minutes long) ballads on the back end, on the whole this was another high quality release from Lucinda.
Blessed (Lost Highway ’11) Rating: A-
Although not quite up to the standards of earlier classics like Lucinda Williams and Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Blessed is worthy of comparison to later landmarks like World Without Tears and is in fact her best studio album since that one. It’s not perfect, as the album is a tad too long (59 minutes), she again goes overboard with her annoying tendency to slur or overly accent her vocals, and some of the more sparse ballads are a bit on the boring side, but again Lucinda proves that she is indeed blessed with immense talent as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader. Pushing 60 years old and newly married, and therefore presumably happy or at least somewhat content, Lucinda looks outward and is less self-involved than in the past, which isn’t a bad thing, though she still finds time to tell former lovers exactly what they can do, as on the leadoff single “Buttercup,” whose most appealing characteristic is its Stonesy guitars, anyway. As per usual, lovely ballads, at times with a countrified flavor (courtesy of noted pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz), come in the form of “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’” (key line: “I’ve always got your back"), “Copenhagen” (a melodic, mournful tribute to deceased manager Frank Callari), “Sweet Love,” “Ugly Truth,” and “Kiss Like Your Kiss” (the low-key album closer that sees Lucinda at her sexiest and most vulnerable). Elsewhere, the howling guitars match the angry, accusatory lyrics of “Seeing Black” (about fellow musician Vic Chesnutt’s suicide), a raging rocker on which guitarists Val McAllum and Elvis Costello (!!!) unleash their inner Crazy Horses. Not to be outdone, the title track is simple and overly repetitive at first but eventually builds into a terrific guitar epic, while “Convince Me” and the moodier, darkly intense “Awakening” are other standout guitar tracks. That’s what I’ve always loved about Lucinda, she does ballads and rockers very well and she always leads a first-rate band. Anyway, you’ll recall that Mr. Costello had also appeared on Little Honey, as did Matthew Sweet, who also sings background vocals on three tracks here, while Eric Liljestrand and husband Tom Overby again co-produce, this time also with the esteemed Don Was. Another key contributor is Wallflower Roni Jaffee, whose rich Hammond organ always sounds pitch perfect, and overall my complaints about this album (at times lazy list-based lyrics plus the aforementioned nitpicks) are minor, as Blessed is yet another heartfelt success from one of the best female singer-songwriters ever.
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