"West," Lucinda Williams
Nine albums into her career, genius Americana songwriter Lucinda Williams has got me confused. On the surface, "West" seems fine. It's loaded with gorgeously sympathetic and atmospheric music, Williams' band moving on a dime from the gentle sway of "Where Is My Love?" to the screeching release of "Come On." And Williams herself, of course, writes lyrics better than anyone this side of Bob Dylan, equally adept at plainspoken poetry ("Somehow trust was caught / between the cracks on my lips / And the scars in my heart / And this burden on my hips") and scathing putdowns ("Look out, your zipper's gonna break / And out pops your little party favor"), all delivered with passion and nuance in her seductive cat scratch of a voice. Well played, well written, well sung. Boring.
For all its quality, "West" sounds stiff, the product of sublimely skilled musicians getting off on subtlety and skill when what the music needed was some dirt and grease, some sloppiness and maybe a chorus you could sing along to. It's a problem exemplified by "Wrap My Head Around That," which feels like it's going to shake free of its sinister, sneaking vibe, but it never does -- the song spends nine minutes skulking at the edge of catharsis. On that track, and many others (eight of 13 songs crawl past five minutes), it sounds to me like Williams and her band (including hotshots Bill Frisell on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums) were having a grand old time grooving on one another, examining the warp and woof of the songs, reveling in the sounds, all the while neglecting to give the listeners a riff or hook or melody to hold on to.
Williams seems to have been trying to match the monotonous music with simple, pared-down lyrics on this lovesick and weary album. As with the lines quoted earlier, Williams hits her mark more often than not, but there are times when the writing feels simplistic, rather than simple, and self-consciously poetic in a way Williams' words rarely do. "Rescue's" lines -- "He can't change you / Change the summers of your beauty / The thunderstorms within your purity / He can't change you" -- are a little too much like an entry in an amateur poetry contest for a writer as good as Williams. I like this Southern gal when she boils over, and all "West" ever does is simmer.
Favorite track: "Words"
"Fork in the Road," the Infamous Stringdusters
The baby-faced traditionalists in the Infamous Stringdusters don't aspire to the artistic heights that Lucinda Williams does, but for my money they've delivered the more enjoyable album. With blazing banjo and mandolin picking, tight, high harmonies and original songs that draw heavily on traditional bluegrass but kick with the all the young-buck vitality of the "O Brother, Where Are Thou?" soundtrack, the Stringdusters have positioned themselves as among the best of the new breed of country revivalists. Will they ever release an album as artistically fulfilling and daring as Williams' best work? Probably not. But sometimes inspired professionalism makes for better listening than artistic meandering.
Favorite track: "No More to Leave You Behind"