(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
God, how I love Lucinda Williams . She hurts, but I love to feel how sweet that hurt feels. A hurt just like when you have a toothache that you keep worrying again and again with your tongue, knowing full well that it’s going to hurt like hell every time you touch it. But you still have to keep touching it. And you keep going back to it again and again. She’s the master of that level of perverse ecstasy. A wrenching heartache that will never go away but that sometimes lifts for moments of great beauty.
Lucinda’s new CD World Without Tears (Lost Highway) maintains that level of lyrical, gorgeous and emotional masochism that she alone seems able to sustain.
This does not feel, on the first few plays, like her best work and sounds somewhat like a project in transition. But, all of Lucinda’s work is best viewed as works in transition — nothing for her will ever be preserved in amber. She herself is a work in progress. For Williams, this was an album recorded in great haste — mere weeks, recorded almost entirely live in the studio with her road band. By contrast, she labored for six years in painstakingly assembling her blockbuster monument, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Her career did not begin with Car Wheels, I have had to remind a few people who have asked me about this new album. Car Wheels was certainly her critical and commercial breakthrough, but there’s much more to her rich history.
To fully understand the sultry passion and coiled tension that underlie Williams’ work, it would be good to return to her earliest recorded works — which fully reflect her Louisiana heritage. Her 1979 debut Ramblin’ was essentially a folk album and was issued on Folkways Records. It was Williams singing and accompanying herself on 12-string guitar (with a second 6-string guitarist) on a series of gutbucket country blues songs. The most user-friendly songs were Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and the Southern classic “Great Speckled Bird.”
Her second album, 1980’s Happy Woman Blues,, consisted of her first original songs, still written in the country blues tradition and very much funkified. Then, Lucinda Williams disappeared from the recorded music world for years and years.
She re-emerged in 1988 with what I feel is her best, most self-expressive work to date, Lucinda Williams. With the great Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline),” Williams reaffirmed her ties to the music that gave her voice, while at the same time she confidently staked out her ground with her own sound and a roll call of her own original songs. Wonderful song after wonderful song roll over you — from the seductive “Passionate Kisses” (later a huge country hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter ) to “Crescent City” to “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.” Williams turns up the heat on Tom Petty’s great “Changed the Locks” to render it a masterpiece of romantic rage.
With her recordings since, Williams has flowered into one of the finest songwriters ever to work in American popular music. In her passionate vocals, Williams manages the Herculean task of seemingly evoking the emotional intensity of the duets of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris — in one voice. With World Without Tears, she returns to full-throated country blues.
What some critics are referring to as her attempts to rap — as with “Sweet Side” or “American Dream” — can better be understood when you remember that there is such a thing as the “talking blues” song in the blues and country traditions. Remember Bob Dylan?
And when Lucinda rocks out, she really rocks out. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” could be a righteous Rolling Stones song and would fit neatly into their Sticky Fingers era. Then she can turn to a tender country blues lament like “People Talkin’.” As always with her, this album is packed chock full of words. The temptation is to quote from every song. But it’s not fair to lift phrases out their full textual and musical context. Be good to yourself — listen to World Without Tears.
And the Jayhawks have issued a marvelous new CD with Rainy Day Music (also from Lost Highway via American Recordings). These former saviors of so-called alt-country from Minneapolis have produced a melodic work of modern songs that are filtered through impeccable influences that are also immediately identifiable. They draw upon the Beatles, the Eagles , Pink Floyd, the Byrds, the Who, the Hollies, Neil Young , Crosby, Stills & Nash (both with and without Young). You could do much worse than that. I don’t mean that they’re imitative. It’s just that in doing modern country rock (which is what this was called until “alt-country” came along), you can’t avoid those touchstones. And the influences are more leaping-off points for the Jayhawks than they are groundings.
Gary Louris has never been in better voice, and his writing chops are in fine form. It’s a very atmospheric work and the title Rainy Day Music is very apt. This also includes a bonus CD with six cuts: an original issue for a Spanish magazine of “Fools on Parade,” demo versions of “Say Your Prayers” and “Caught With a Smile on My Face,” acoustic versions of “All the Right Reasons” and “Tampa to Tulsa” and a live recording of “Waiting for the Sun.”
Musical footnotes: former Eagle Bernie Leadon makes an appearance here (on banjo). The word “accordion” is misspelled in the musician credits. Jakob Dylan, Matthew Sweet and Chris Stills (Stephen Stills’ son) add vocals. Producer Ethan Johns is the son of producer/engineer Glyn Johns, who has worked with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Eagles, the Who and Eric Clapton.
And Minneapolis music never sounded better.