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Lasting impressions

September 02, 2007

Lucinda WILLIAMS will perform five of her albums in their entirety -- one each night, along with other material -- during a five-show stand that gets underway Wednesday at the El Rey Theatre. She'll also join the growing number of musicians offering their fans instant souvenirs, making CDs of each night's concert available immediately after each show. Pop music staff writers Ann Powers, Richard Cromelin and Randy Lewis revisit the albums she'll perform:

"World Without Tears"

(Lost Highway, 2003)

Wednesday

By the time she made this articulate, emotionally raw album, Williams had matured into an artist who transcended genre and influences. "American Dream," a semi-spoken tour of tough economic times, is conducted to a jazzy soul-music backdrop that honors Marvin Gaye. In "Words Fell," Williams captures an aching intimacy with a sound so spare and vulnerable that it seems to be slowing to a near-stop. Her exaggerated, liquid drawl unites the album's blend of diverse elements -- smoldering rock, "Exile on Main Street" swagger, fiery vehemence, prayer-like reflection. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" is usually regarded as the quintessential Lucinda Williams album, but she's never walked the minefield between pain and truth (as she puts it in more than one lyric) as memorably as she does in "World Without Tears." (R.C.)

Thursday

"Essence"

(Lost Highway, 2001)

This languid, delicate set isn't everyone's cup of Lucinda. The slow tempos and the band's easy flow almost come across as easy listening -- at first. But as the songs burn down, dripping candle wax, the set's real motive becomes clear: Like a meditator sitting with her discomfort as she breathes in and out, Williams seeks to examine how desire and disappointment feel in the present tense. Gentle to the ear, songs such as "I Envy the Wind" and the sexy title track grow more intense as their elements unfold. Repeated phrases become incantations thrown out to heal unbearable heartbreak; slinky riffs and vocals that keep dropping into a whisper mirror the rhythms of carnality and grief. It's the usual Williams territory, lived in differently, the sound of a perfectionist loosening up. (A.P.)

Saturday

"Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

(Mercury, 1998)

I'll never forget first hearing what many call Williams' masterwork. A friend of hers had passed me an early copy: a cassette with hand-lettered titles pasted on. I popped it into the boom box in the kitchen of my Brooklyn row house and was plunged into humidity and dust, the tinge of slow-cooked meat and the headachy smell of old whiskey in the air. Rarely had an album been so redolent of place, wet with the atmosphere of the Southern towns Williams longingly invoked: Jackson, Greenville, Lake Charles. Williams spent six frustrating years making "Car Wheels." Almost a decade later, these songs of hunger, wisdom and regret still sound like secrets spontaneously confessed. The band, the singing, every word: It just couldn't be better. (A.P.)

Next Sunday

"Sweet Old World"

(Chameleon/Elektra, 1992)

This sweet old world, as Williams chronicled it here, is all too often a hard, sad and lonely old place. On her fourth album, in which her songwriting exhibited increasing confidence, she sounds almost numb when she tells a suicide victim, "see what you lost when you left this sweet old world." Finding that sweetness can be a struggle, she suggests across this album, a struggle that ends in failure for many who grapple with it, like the protagonist in the lead-off track whose lover -- and happiness -- has moved "Six Blocks Away," leaving him emotionally dazed and confused. Rare moments of joy ("Lines Around Your Eyes") simply underscore the feeling of how fleeting -- and how precious -- they really are. (R.L.)

Sept. 10

"Lucinda Williams"

(Rough Trade, 1988)

Williams will conclude her series with the collection that's her de facto debut, although she'd released two albums of tradition-tight folk several years earlier. This is one of the key templates for alt-country, with songs that would later be recorded by Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty, among others. Her genres are more clearly defined than they would be later -- folk-rock, blues, honky-tonk, et al. -- and she hasn't discovered her idiosyncratic singing voice, but there's a freshness in her melodies and an unmistakable stamp of originality in her lyrics. And in the first two songs, "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" and "The Night's Too Long," she introduces the driven-by-desire, drawn-to-danger persona that would become a recurring presence in her music. (R.C.)

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