Ask anyone familiar with Lucinda Williams’ music and early on in their reply they’ll almost surely include mention of 1998’s Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, but Williams’ abilities as a singer and songwriter came to full bloom ten years before. It was at that time when she firmly established herself as a force in roots music ten years earlier with her self-titled album, her third overall. Even if few knew so at the time.
That’s somewhat understandable; Lucinda Williams came out of the small, UK-based Rough Trade label. Going with an indie concern, she got to make the record she wanted to make but promotion isn’t what these kind of labels are built for. It also hadn’t helped that the album has been out of print for the last ten years. Meanwhile, Williams’ star power had steadily grown. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris started recording her songs and turning some of these into hits (Carpenter’s cover of “Passionate Kisses” resulted in the first of three Grammy wins for Williams). By the time Car Wheels, her first major label release, Lucinda Williams’ popularity had finally started catching up with her reputation. In a lot of ways, she’s been the female John Hiatt.
Recently, the long lost master tapes for Lucinda Williams have been recovered and now in its twenty-fifth year, the time seems prime for a remastering and a reissue…and a revisit.
Williams plays country, she plays folk, rock and yes, she plays the blues. But the craftsmanship she puts into these simple and well-practiced forms is uncanny: she crafts uncluttered, straightforward verses about un-straightforward relationships. You know, the kind of relationships that we’re more likely have here in the real world. “Side Of The Road” is the yearning for a taste of freedom even though she isn’t at odds with her lover; the Grammy-winning “Passionate Kisses” plainly asks for simple basic necessities of life; “The Night’s Too Long” chronicles a waitress who wants more that she gets from her small-town life. Did she find the man of her dreams? Williams leaves that an open question.
When Williams sings with frailty or desperation, she’s at her best. Maybe her range is a little limited, but boy, she uses it to deadly effect and delivers with the same ease that her lyrics flow forth. You can feel the lust oozing out on “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” even though there’s nothing suggestive in her words. She sounds so sad and lonely on “Am I Too Blue.” She asserts herself and lays down the law with her misbehaving lover on “Price To Pay.”
“Changed The Locks” is a subtly witty mixture swagger and vulnerability, a honest-to-goodness rocker that sounds so much like a Tom Petty tune that Petty himself ended up covering it. Going from the reasonable (“changed the locks”) to the absurd by the last verse (“changed the name of this town”) you gradually get a sense of her vain attempt to assert a measure of self-control.
The second CD contains newly-revealed live tracks taped the following year in the Netherlands. These cuts prove that Williams’ notorious meticulousness invested in the album carried over onto her live performances. Most of the songs performed come from Lucinda Williams, supplemented by the title cut of the prior Happy Woman Blues, her then-unrecorded gem “Something About What Happens When We Talk” and a handful of blues covers.
There’s nothing to complain about the engineering and mixing work on these recordings and the drums are even toned down a bit from the booming beats typical of late 80s recordings that inflicted even Williams’ otherwise flawless studio production. And then for good measure, six additional live tracks previously available are tacked on, presumably from the same time period. These stripped-down radio performances remind us that when you take away Lucinda’s studio fussiness and most of her band, she remains just as brilliant in delivering a song and conversely, her songs stand tall on their own.
So hard to categorize beyond that broad “Americana” label but so easy to embrace, the album whose title bears simply her name is the album where her legacy really begins and looking back, there isn’t an album of hers that define her core better than this one. The expanded reissue casts a shine on that core in an even better light.
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Lucinda Williams gets it’s big re-release on January 14. Visit Lucinda Williams’ website for more info.