A truly great album, out of print for a decade, is back, tracing the emergence of a brilliant songwriter.
It took singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams eight years to get out her third album, a self-titled affair on the Rough Trade label that featured mostly original songs. But it was worth the wait. Lucinda Williams from 1988 was the kind of recording that makes an impact: other musicians loved it, with Mary Chapin Carpenter rerecording "Passionate Kisses" to huge acclaim, Tom Petty covering "Changed the Locks", and Emmylou Harris taking on "Crescent City".
But even by 1988, not many regular folks knew about Williams. The genre niche for Williams probably didn’t exist yet. Today, we call her music "Americana", but that term -- meaning some amalgam of American roots music styles from country to folk to blues -- didn’t exist back then. Her big moment would come a decade later with critical acclaim and good sales for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. But Lucinda Williams may well be the better disc as it's more raw and direct, more powerful, more varied in its tone.
How can it have been out of print for ten years? But now it’s back on Williams’ own label, paired with a bonus disc featuring a fine recording of a 1989 concert from the Netherlands and six mostly acoustic tracks recorded for radio station KCRW around that time. And all this music, the original versions and the live tracks, is still utterly wonderful. Williams’ ability to create vivid images, little stories wedded to riveting melodies. Here it is, for the first time, in amazing evidence.
For fans of Lucinda Williams, it’s fair to say that the huge drum pick-up that literally kicks off the opener, "I Just Want to See You So Bad" makes you feel young again. Producer Gurf Morlix lays in terse and direct electric guitar, and the decision to put a big organ lick into the introduction and chorus can’t be doubted. Your blood rushes through you veins as Williams explains, "It didn’t matter what my friends would say / I was going to see you anyway." It’s all desire and urgency, naiveté and foolishness... and pleasure.
That kind of song, a poetically direct expression of questionably motivated passion, is the future hit song too. The descending guitar lick that would drive the hit version is here too, plus a more vulnerable vocal from the composer. "Is it much to demand / I want a full house and a rock-and-roll band? / Pens that won’t run out of ink / And quiet and time to think / Should I have this and passionate kisses?" And maybe it is Lucinda Williams’ voice that would always keep her music from really hitting the charts big. It can be slightly nasal, pressed hard against your ear with an urgent quaver particularly on the up-tempo songs.
But the wonder of Lucinda Williams is that the lady has plenty of different ways to worm into your brain, your soul, your heart. She can be remarkably tender on the ballads here, love songs that never threaten to turn to treacle. "Like a Rose" rides on a pillow of finger-picking that allows a blue melody to support the endearing lyric that pleads with its object: "It’s okay to feel good / That’s the way it should be / Everything we have is fresh and new / I will open myself up to you." "Price to Pay" is a country ballad in waltz time that catalogs the result of a broken heart, with Williams relaxed and easy in the lyric, with no pity.
Even better is "Side of the Road", a mid-tempo ballad that is lyrically rare indeed -- about the need for a woman to feel what it’s like to be without her man "if only for a minute or two". The claim that Williams’ lyrics can be like a good short story is backed up here:
I walked out in a field, the grass was high, it brushed against my legs
I just stood and looked out at the open space and a farmhouse out a ways
And I wondered about the people who lived in it
And I wondered if they were happy and content
Were there children and a man and a wife?
Did she love him and take her hair down at night?
Add to these cleanly etched images the gorgeous fiddle accompaniment, and you have one of the strongest pieces of songwriting and arrangement for its era.
Williams retains plenty of her blues side on this disc as well. "I Asked for Water (He Gave me Gasoline)" is a straight 12-bar blues by Chester Burnett, given a delicious rural/electric feeling here. "Changed the Locks" is a blues-harp drenched rocker written by Williams that catalogs all the ways that the narrator has disguised herself from an unwanted lover. "Big Red Sun Blues" is no such thing, but "I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)" is certainly a loping old-style blues that shows off Williams’ voice at its most relaxed and flexible as she yodels and cries out, letting the band get messy.
The second disc brings you through the album again, live, with a tight band that lives up to the original even as it covers some older (and newer songs). The treat here, perhaps, is the straight-forward "Crescent City", with nice, heavy guitar work, or the quiet "Something About What Happens When We Talk", a song that would appear on Williams’ next studio record, Sweet Old World, featuring a very effective background vocal part. This tune is featured in the KCRW set as well, this time with the vocals above just two acoustic guitars, making this romantic song sound that much more forlorn.
But that’s the magic in so much of Lucinda Williams’ music. She can jump your ears with uptempo groove, with rocking intent, sure, but even the happy songs seem shadowed by clouds. And the quiet songs, the melancholy tunes, they contain traces of hope. Which is why I still think that Lucinda Williams is best categorized as a blues artist. She mixes joy and heartbreak like few other rock artists, like none of the more old-fashioned or precious "Americana" practitioners.
Listen the live version of the hit-for-someone-else, "Passionate Kisses", and enjoy the pop perfection of the descending lead guitar line, absolutely, but also be amazed by the rubbed-raw vocal, as Williams begs the listener to agree that she deserves some decent breaks in life, even as all her sharp edges suggest make you realize that the sweet kisses may not be coming.
Each song is a story. And that’s greatness in this kind of music.