Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014)

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Lucinda Williams — the famously demanding studio perfectionist who fusses over every track and doesn’t care how long it takes to complete an album — has given us twenty new songs just three years after Blessed. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone — out September 30, 2014 via Williams’ Highway 20 Records imprint — is her first double-disc album, an abundance of new songs from this veteran country-blues-folk-rock singer-songwriter who places a premium on quality over quantity. And we all know the deal with double-disc albums, right? They’re notoriously uneven affairs, from the Beatles’ White Album on down.

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone varies, too: from pretty darned good to sublime.

At the beginning of the year, we were reminded of why roots rock fans fell in love with Williams in the first place; the long overdue reissue of her influential Lucinda Williams made up its own rules of how to render folk songs, and whether she went country, blues or swampy rock, it all found a way to connect to listeners.

Greg Leisz, a ubiquitous name in the Americana music world, again brings his full range of talents to a Williams record (he also appeared on that most recent record Blessed) and the most widely acclaimed Lucinda Williams record Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998). Playing electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel, mandolin and backing vocals on these releases, Williams also tabs him to produce this record. Leisz doesn’t make jarring changes to Don Was’ handling of Blessed, which basically hit the mark in putting Williams’ vocal front and center while using backing that’s at once effervescent and jagged. Leisz seizes on the weariness of Williams’ songs and tweaks the sonic quality of these recordings to reflect that even better.

Williams dips her pen in the well of love, pain, loss, redemption and a yearning for something better, and there’s nothing new for her there, but there are few who can express those emotions with words and the means to deliver them with devastating impact that she can. As Williams’ peers reach a point in their careers where their voices break down, her own weathered drawl becomes even more so, sometimes almost slurring her lines to great effect, and that only serves to increase her emotionally packed powers.

“Burning Bridges” is country-soul with a churning guitar mimicking a B3 followed by a stinging guitar lead matching Williams’ second-person tale of self-destruction. In asking for security “Protection” is strikes an independent stance; it’s one soul-rocker that Aretha Franklin should feel right at home singing.

When Williams sneers on “East Side of Town” at some affluent do-gooder that “when you find yourself in my neighborhood, you can’t wait to get the hell out,” she never has to raise her voice to make known her disgust at the hypocrisy she sees. “West Memphis” is a first-person account of getting framed for a grisly murder of three boys in that Arkansas town in 1993, as one of the West Memphis Three young men who were convicted for the crimes and recently released after newly analyzed DNA evidence led to a new plea deal. Though Williams never sings about the chilling details of the case, fellow Louisiana legend Tony Joe White with his grimy guitar gets the sentiment across.

Another big guest appearance comes from Americana-jazz guitar master Bill Frisell, from whom Leisz lent his pedal steel on and off for the last fifteen years (since Frisell’s Good Dog, Happy Man). Frisell’s light, sparkly guitar on “It’s Gonna Rain” contrasts with the resigned tone in Williams’ voice, and later on, Jakob Dylan adds harmony vocal.

But the guitars do just fine everywhere else, too. Leisz is no slouch on any fretted instrument and for nearly every song he and a second guitarist (usually Val McCallum or Stuart Mathis) blur the lines between rhythm and lead, lending the tasteful accompaniment we’ve long come to expect from a Lucinda Williams record. They bring an air of sophistication to even the folksy cuts, such as “Wrong Number” and “Stand Right By Each Other,” and get downright organically ethereal on the ten-minute closer “Magnolia.”

The band also gets to jam some on the smoldering, muddy RnB groove “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and Williams meets their swagger with a devilish scowl in her voice. Much of the rest of the second disc settles into gentle country-rock numbers (“Big Mess”, “When I Look At The World”, “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)” but right in the middle of that stretch is a bonafide blues-rocker of the Bonnie Raitt variety, “Everything But The Truth,” and the guitars often rise up between stanzas to provide the punch.

“Compassion” may not be your favorite song on Spirit, but it’s probably the most important one to Williams, as it represents her first attempt to adapt one of her father’s poems to song. Miller Williams, a well-known poet who read one of his works at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, published “Compassion” back in ‘99, and Lucinda tweaked the words and set it to a melody. Leisz left Miller’s daughter alone in the studio with just an acoustic guitar to make a very personal delivery of the tune about showing empathy even when it’s not welcome, because in that rejection lies “where the spirit meets the bone.”

That seems an apt way to end an album, but “Compassion” is positioned right at the beginning of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. And that fits in just fine with Lucinda Williams’ upfront approach to dealing with the heavier matters that confront common people. She’s got no time for lightweight material, and none can be found on this voluminous album. Quality and quantity make a rare convergence.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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