Lisa Marie Presley is in the papers again, but this time, she’s happy about it. That’s because she’s releasing her debut solo album, To Whom It May Concern. Meanwhile, two twangy artists who have long lingered on the fringe of country music — Lucinda Williams and the Jayhawks — return with spectacular results. And Willie Nelson is keepin’ it real on a Texas-friendly album.
Now, an effort to describe Lisa Marie Presley’s voice. … Husky? Smoky? Gruff? Maybe it’s enough to say she sounds like Cher. To Whom It May Concern (Capitol) has been four years in the making although Presley’s been in the spotlight since her birth. There’s nothing country about this album — and nothing to do with Elvis either, aside from her looks and a morbid Memphis reference or two. Presley insists in press material that this album represents her true self, but the lyrics are too buried in the mix to comprehend. While her music is intriguing enough to justify a second album, this one remains somewhat murky.
With another broken heart comes another heartbreaking album from Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (Lost Highway). Recorded live-to-tape in a 1920s mansion in Los Angeles, the album simmers with sexual longing and regret. Named by Time magazine as “America’s Best Songwriter,” this album proves them right — especially on the devastating title track. About halfway through, Williams works up a sweat on “Atonement” and “Sweet Side,” but “American Dream” is less optimistic than the title infers. Nobody will call it the feel-good hit of the year, but Williams has nonetheless crafted an album of beauty and sadness.
The Jayhawks’ Rainy Day Music (Lost Highway) shimmers like a pond after a morning storm. After their pop-oriented previous album Smile generated fewer ripples than expected, the Minneapolis band returned to its roots — jangly guitars, fluid melodies and bright harmonies. At once cool, contemporary and almost California-retro, songs like “Tailspin” and “Save It For a Rainy Day” sound ready-made for cruising. Ethan Johns produced, and Gram Parsons would be proud. Early shoppers are rewarded with a six-song bonus CD of rare tracks, demos and acoustic renditions.
Bluegrass grows in strange places this week with the release of Sean Watkins’ 26 Miles and Acoustic Syndicate’s Terra Firma (both on Sugar Hill). Watkins is a member of Nickel Creek , the young trio that won a Grammy for This Side. If you liked that album, you’ll probably like the meandering 26 Miles, too. Acoustic Syndicate injects a Dave Matthews-like mentality into its music, which might be fun while lounging at a festival.
A handful of other noteworthy compilations hit the racks this week. Doc Watson puts the blues in bluegrass with Trouble in Mind: The Doc Watson Country Blues Collection 1964-1998 (Sugar Hill). Bluegrass hero Jimmy Martin sings the Songs of a Free Born Man: Recordings 1959-1992 (CMH). James Taylor compiles his signature songs for the single-disc Best of James Taylor (Warner Bros.).
Sawyer Brown ’s inspirational tunes (such as “The Walk”) are collected for True Believer (Curb). Let Freedom Sing: This Land Is Your Land, Volume II (Vanguard) unearths folk gems from Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and others known for their poetic protests. Rebel rouser David Allan Coe revisits the hits (such as “You Never Even Call Me by My Name”) with Live at Billy Bob’s Texas (Smith Music). A separate 90-minute concert-and-conversation DVD is also available.
Five tracks that didn’t make Jack Ingram’s 2002 album Electric surface on the EP Electric: Extra Volts (Lucky Dog). Another new track from Ingram — a cover of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” — highlights Texas Outlaws (Compadre), which mostly features Texas singers remaking rowdy country classics. Here’s a big shout-out for including Townes Van Zandt ’s stirring live version of “Pancho and Lefty.” And there’s something to be said for concluding an album with a rapping Willie Nelson — yes, rapping! Seems that an appropriate song title now is, “What Won’t Willie Do?”