Saturday, December 15, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 468: Lucinda Williams

I’m just back from having brunch with Sheila at one of Victoria’s finest diners (Floyd’s) and ready to tackle our review.  One of my favourite things about Floyd’s are the staff, who are always friendly, genuine and interesting people.  Today we got a line on a couple of new bands from a new employee, Sam.  Sadly cannot remember the name of the recommendations right now, but fortunately Sheila wrote them down in her notebook, so when she gets home I can fall down the Youtube well and check them out.

I loathe the radio (I see no reason to spend my time waiting for one in four songs I like, when I can just listen to exactly what I want by playing my own music).  If you loathe the radio, the best way to pick up on new bands is word of mouth from other equally enthusiastic music fans.

Or you can read my blog, but I guess that’s happening right now, so hardly a useful tip.

Disc 468 is…Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Artist: Lucinda Williams

Year of Release: 1998

What’s up with the Cover?  A gravel road, which I can only assume will soon experience (or has recently experienced) some car wheels.  Not much of a house at the end of the road but such are the downsides to the rustic country life.

How I Came To Know It:  For most people, this album is their first exposure to Lucinda Williams but I came to “Car Wheels” a bit later.  I had heard it was considered her finest record, so I bought it early on, but only after I already owned “Sweet Old World” and “Essence.”

How It Stacks Up:  Since my last Lucinda review she’s put out another album, so I now have ten albums by her.  “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” is one of my three favourites.  Oddly, I’ve reviewed the other two already (“World Without Tears” back at Disc 161 and her self-titled album at Disc 37).  “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” is maybe even the best of the bunch, but it depends on my mood.  With the dice gods seeing fit to deliver all three of the best albums first, it is all downhill from here, I suppose, but it will still be a lovely ride.

Rating:  5 stars

Some would say that the only Lucinda Williams you really need to have is “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” Those people are of course, idiots.  Every Lucinda album is great, and the two I previously reviewed are every bit the equal of “Car Wheels.”

That is saying a lot, though, because this is as fine an example of alt-folk music you will hear.  For all my love for “World Without Tears” and her self-titled album, I will freely admit that “Car Wheels” is the album I would recommend as the gateway to Lucinda.

The record begins with “Right in Time,” where Lucinda shows off her sexy, sultry side (she does sexy and sultry as good as anyone alive).  She is never afraid to expose herself for a good song, and “Right in Time” which is about the longing, release, and afterglow of a sexual encounter is both tender and visceral at the same time.  Best line:

“I take off my watch and my earrings
My bracelets and everything
Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling.”

It’s a good thing the album starts on such a harmonious note, because Lucinda Williams more often than not sings about relationships in trouble.  Lucinda’s voice takes on a hurt that is as strong as anything you’ll hear from a Blues master.

On the title track Lucinda references Loretta Lynn playing on the radio as part of an early childhood memory of moving.  On “Concrete and Barbed Wire” her tone is strongly evocative of Loretta, who is an obvious inspiration.  Singing high and plaintive, with her southern accent coming out strong, Lucinda tells the story of a woman’s love, so strong it makes her delusional, as she wonders why it can’t break her lover out of prison.  After all, the walls holding him in are ‘only made of concrete and barbed wire.’  It’s a sad, broken, junkie logic that makes the song strangely heroic.

Later on the album, Lucinda reminds us that there are far more tragic barriers to relationships than prison walls.  “Can’t Let Go” is an up-tempo blues song about refusing to admit a failed relationship is finished.  The guitar work on the song is a brilliant bit of playing that reminds me of early John Lee Hooker.

Greenville” tells the story of  a woman letting her man go, after finally realizing that he is no good for her (maybe it’s the same guy from “Concrete and Barbed Wire” after he gets paroled).  “Greenville” is sorrowful and resigned as Lucinda effectively tells the bum she’s with to get out of town:

“Empty bottles and broken glass
Busted down doors and borrowed cash
Borrowed cash, oh the borrowed cash
Go back to Greenville, just go on back to Greenville.”

Of all the great and tragic relationship songs on the album (and there are many) my favourite is “Metal Firecracker.”  I think of this song as the lowest common denominator at the end of a relationship:

“Once I was in your blood
And you were obsessed with me
You wanted to paint my picture
You wanted to undress me
You wanted to see me in your future.

“All I ask
Don’t tell anybody the secrets
Don’t tell anybody the secrets
I told you.”

Because when it’s really over, that’s all you can ask of your ex; keep the secrets you shared with each other.  Keep faith with something beautiful, even if that something doesn’t even exist anymore.  “Metal Firecracker” is a fitting book end to “Right in Time”, with Lucinda singing once again about being undressed, but this time instead of it being triumphant and trusting with her in control, now it is vulnerable and awkward, and in the hands of another.

The album’s production is a perfect match for the open honest vocals, featuring big, loose guitar playing that I found reminiscent of early Johnny Cash.  All of the players are amazing, and there is a softness in some songs, and a jangle in others, depending on what the tempo and the topic call for.  Sometimes it is bluesy, sometimes folksy, and sometimes a little rock and roll, but it always knows what to do when and in what proportion.  Lyrically, musically and emotionally there are simply no missteps on “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

Best tracks:  all tracks

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