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(Lost Highway Records 088 170 197 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/13/2001)
Success in the pop music world is certainly notoriously fickle. And as any even casual observer of the music scene will note, commercial success has almost nothing to do with degree of talent and quality of music. If anything, the level of commercial success seems almost inversely proportional to talent. But once in a while, an interesting and creative artist will manage to enjoy some success, however fleeting, and then is soon faced with the dilemma of how to follow up that recording with something sufficiently similar to keep fans happy, but different enough to keep them from being bored. This week's album is a recording by just that kind of artist, Lucinda Williams, whose new CD is called Essence.
It was three years ago that Ms. Williams released her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which unexpectedly won a Grammy award and sold a half-million copies. Though it was her fifth album, many considered her a new artist, and for Ms. Williams, she said she felt her own personal pressure in following up the album. After a period of not writing, she went to work on a collection of both new songs and ones that had been in her notebooks unfinished going back to the early 1980s and found herself taking a somewhat different direction, from more the narrative songs of her past albums, to ones that were decidedly more impressionistic on Essence.
The child of nomadic parents -- a mother who had a musical background, and a father who was a poet and English professor, and the granddaughter of two itinerant preachers, Ms. Williams spent time in various parts of the South, and even lived in South America for a time while growing up. She is now based in Nashville, after being part of the Austin, Texas, music scene. Performing since the 1970s, her first recording was for the Folkways label, known for traditional music. Her debut CD Ramblin' consisted of traditional blues songs. But her distinctive style, with her somewhat world-weary vocals, and her penchant for writing fine songs that would be recorded by other artists, attracted fans of the contemporary singer-songwriter, roots rock and even of the alternative rock scene. While songs on 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road tended toward the narrative with some songs written about specific people in her life, some of the compositions on Essence almost have a Zen-like quality from their poetic compactness. Ms. Williams' voice can be an acquired taste, but she is often compelling in her delivery of the songs.
Joining Ms. Williams in this Minneapolis-made recording is a fine group of backing musicians, including guitarist Charlie Sexton, who once the project was under way was appointed co-producer by Ms. Williams. They also include guitarist Bo Ramsey, who co-produced the early basic tracks, keyboard man Reese Wynans, best known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, plus legendary drummer rock Jim Keltner and multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, playing violin and viola, and generally making himself into a string section by way of overdubbing.
In a recent interview with an Austin radio station, Ms. Williams described the recording process. <<interview excerpt>> As for her writing, she says that the change in lyrical style from a narrative approach to a more impressionistic one was not so much a conscious effort. <<interview excerpt>> It turns out that many of the songs take a decidedly downcast lyrical mood, with the loss of love being a recurring theme.
The result is a memorable album that features fine musicians, interesting arrangements, and an oddly languid sound, thanks to Ms. Williams' vocals that can simultaneously exude vulnerability and ennui.
Leading off is one of the more impressionistic sets of lyrics, Lonely Girls, with its appealing kind of rainy-day musical setting. <<>>
With a more positive mood is Steal Your Love, a song of romantic desire given a vaguely spacey treatment. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is Out of Touch, which Ms. Williams said was inspired by our computer and communication-dominated world in which people can lose touch. <<>>
The title track Essence probably has the most rock-like sound. Its multifaceted lyrics combine with the arrangement's bluesy undercurrent to imply a vaguely sleazy quality. <<>>
Ms. Williams takes a country direction on a couple of the album's songs, including Reason to Cry, which has a kind of classic sound, nicely served up by the band. <<>>
For someone who lived in various parts of the country, Ms. Williams holds Louisiana in special regard. Bus to Baton Rouge is a series of reminiscences on a house full of memories. <<>>
Ms. Williams' concept on this album of letting the music flow, rather than being so much based on a lyrical story, is at its best on Are You Down, in which the band sets up a great groove, while Ms. Williams' lyrical triplets take a romantic falling out into almost Zen-like territory. <<>>
The most surprising track on Essence is Get Right with God, which is given a kind of swamp blues treatment while the lyrics imply old-time religion, including the snake-handlers of the South. <<>>
Lucinda Williams' new release Essence is the first new recording from the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter in three years, and it marks something of a departure from her previous release Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Conceptually more impressionistic, and musically more tasteful and laid back, the CD stands as highlight of Ms. Williams' surprisingly long musical career. It's the kind of album that grows more intriguing the more you listen.
Unfortunately, in the sonic quality department, I'll give the CD no better grade than a C+. As usual the problem is with dynamic range. There isn't any to speak of. The CD has the heavily-compressed in-your-face sound that has become the fad on major-label releases. The quieter passages are just as loud as the loud ones, causing distortion at times on the drums, and generally detracting greatly from the ebb and flow of the music, on this otherwise fairly well-recorded CD.
Whether Lucinda Williams can reach the level of commercial success this time around that she did on her last album, especially with the singer-songwriter field as crowded as it is now, remains to be seen. But Essence is definitely a worthy follow-up from a distinctive and resourceful artist.
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