Tuesday, September 13, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 912: Lucinda Williams

I’m back from watching my beloved Miami Dolphins lose their season opener. The Dolphins continue to find new and interesting ways to disappoint me, and this was no exception as they gave up the lead with 30 seconds to go.

Here’s an album from a woman who seems to know a thing or two about disappointment.

Disc 912 is….The Ghosts of Highway 20
Artist: Lucinda Williams

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? In the United States, Highway 20 runs across the northern USA from coast to coast. In British Columbia it runs from Williams Lake to Bella Coola. I suspect Lucinda is writing about the American version but either way you’re liable to encounter long lonely stretches that feel like they go on forever. Kind of like this record.

How I Came To Know It: I love Lucinda Williams, so I bought this album unheard expecting great things.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Lucinda Williams albums. Apart from a couple of very early albums full of blues covers, “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is my least favourite. This puts it in 10th place.

Ratings: 3 stars

When you release four albums’ worth of music in two years and you’re not named Bob Dylan, you are tempting fate. Technically, Lucinda released two double albums, but the effect is the same: on “Ghosts of Highway 20” fate starts to catch up with her.

Despite many flashes of brilliance, there is just too much material on “Ghosts…” and that material just goes on too long. There are only 14 songs but it takes Lucinda two albums and over 85 minutes of playing time to tell those 14 stories. It isn’t that these songs are bad, it’s that they go on too long.

All but three of the 14 songs are over five minutes long, and many are a long way over. I think Williams is trying to capture a live bar-band kind of feel, with a lot of repeat sections and long, meandering blues/rock guitar solos. The effect is that you get tired of listening to the set long before it is over.

This is a hard thing to complain about, because these solos are fantastic, and most songs are packed with both them and plenty of blue notes spicing up the melodies besides. Guitar legend Bill Frisell is amazing and a highlight of the record throughout, but there is just a bit too much of everything, even him. It is a guitar sound that grows on you and sinks into your bones, but I could’ve used just 15 minutes less of it by the time I reached the end.

Lucinda’s voice is not for everyone, but one of its great features is the amount of hurt she can pack into it. That hurt is like an open wound, bleeding and broken, and strangely beautiful. On “Ghosts…” she’s still got it, but she takes the tortured quality one step too far at times. Coupled with Frisell’s guitar there were times when I felt my head had been held under water just a little too long. I’d complain to Lucinda but she’d probably just take a drag on a cigarette, blow smoke in my face and tell me to stop being such a baby.

Lyrically, the record is raw as well, and it feels in places like Lucinda is just sitting on a porch, drunk on bourbon and lamenting all those she’s lost along life’s journey, whether through abandoned love or (just as likely) death. Few cozy up as close to death as Lucinda and her singing is bleak and truthful as she confronts the eternal dark. When religion enters the fray you get the sense that she finds the whole thing…complicated. She’s not angry at the universe dishing out heartache, she just finds it a little confusing.

Lucinda also gets into the hard-scrabble lives of the lower class whether they be prostitutes (“House of Earth”) or mill workers (a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory”). “Factory” is one of the few songs I’ve taught myself to play on the guitar and has a soft spot in my heart. I prefer the Springsteen version to Lucinda’s cover, but it is one of those songs that has bones so beautiful you can’t wreck it.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

There are lots of things to commend “Ghosts of Highway 20.” If there had been just a little less of it, I would’ve liked it more. If you do decide to give it a try I recommend both headphones and whiskey – both’ll help you sink down deep enough to appreciate it.

Best tracks: House of Earth, Death Came, Doors of Heaven, Louisiana Story, Ghost of Highway 20, Factory, Can’t Close the Door on Love

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