Friday, August 15, 2008

Struck by the Sounds - August 15th, 2008

Lucinda Williams-Little Honey (release in 4th qtr.)

Based on the overwhelming reputation of her Car Wheels On A Gravel Road album, Lucinda Williams reached a level of respect and reverence reserved for the few. That album felt like the artistic culmination of a lifetime. Thus, it shouldn’t have been surprising when the following four albums felt like a series of near-misses. Essence and World Without Tears were both moving, emotionally raw albums, but neither of them hit with the emotional satisfaction of Car Wheels. Her Live At The Fillmore was pretty good, but the band wasn’t her best, and it felt perfunctory-especially after the release of a couple of live Car Wheels era concerts that just blew it away (Live At Austin City Limits and Car Wheels-Deluxe Edition). Her most recent album, West really felt like a misstep, with her normally refined sense of self-pity overflowing into a sad puddle on the floor. It felt like she might have peaked and be heading toward the sunset. 
Little Honey arrived on my desk in a plain brown wrapper with no song list or liner notes. I thought-“man she is just pumping them out now.” So, now it is my pleasure to tell you what an absolute miracle this album is. It is not a return to form, it is a new level of brilliance for one of the best America has. On this album, Ms. Williams seems to have gotten back in touch with her rock and roll heart. The upbeat numbers are filled with joy, the sad ones are real pathos, not just cry-in-your-beer mumblings. The album kicks off with a rocking tribute to new love. That subject never gets old does it? No matter how many times we (the audience) hear about it, and then see it fall apart, there is still that optimistic place in each of us that roots for someone else’s chance of finding lasting happiness. Each song opens a new chapter to the book of Lucinda’s heart-bluesy, lusty, regretful, loving and most importantly happy. There is a joyful spark in each performance that has simply been missing from her more recent work. Track seven is a duet with Elvis Costello that will please fans of either artist. Much of the album is about the vagaries of fame-something both of these artists have seen from both sides. Ms. Williams seems to have come out the other side with her glow intact.
The real issue is the songwriting. Lucinda has gotten back in touch with the muse that was avoiding her, and she is writing the kind of material that illustrates with every touching couplet that she is a thoughtful writer in full command of the language and her ability to turn an artistic phrase like no other. Like Car Wheels it feels like this album will be a constant source of revelation and sustenance for the lucky listener. 

Wovenhand-Ten Stones (in stores 9-9-08)

At the end of the first song on Wovenhand’s brilliant new album Ten Stones leader David Eugene Edwards sings “Beautiful the axe that flies at me.” This line sums up the mindset of his writing style. In a word he sings about dread. The dread of living a life of sin, the dread of impending judgment, the dread of existing on this world of danger and evil, the dread of the unknown heading at your head with the splitting finality of heaven or hell. Throughout this album, and his entire career for that matter, Edwards has depicted the fundamental schism of human existence with unnerving precision. The difficulty of living a life of beauty while swimming in shit has rarely been so accurately described. Like Nick Cave, Edwards has become extremely adroit at explicating the confusion about humans being either risen apes or fallen angels. Like all philosophers, he never comes up with a completely convincing conclusion. His yearning for salvation is matched by his awareness of his (and mankind’s) flaws and the inevitability of our fall. 

Musically this is Edwards’ most muscular album to date. Gone are the fragile, spacey arrangements, replaced by booming bass, strong drum tracks and a more confident guitar and vocal style. The idea of an Antonio Carlos Jobim cover would have seemed unlikely with the old Edwards, but he tackles “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” with swagger and aplomb, and it is one of the real highlights of an album of many highlights. The main attraction here though is, as ever, Edwards ability to explain the confusion and dread in his heart in a melodic and exciting way.  So many albums produced today are simply lighthearted attempts to grab the brass ring of fame. Wovenhand are attempting something with far greater aspirations. To quote one of his songs it requires a “White Knuckle Grip.”

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