Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Lucinda Williams: West
(Lost Highway, 2007) B+

LIKE most major artists who have something relevant to say, Lucinda Williams has evolved over the years. In 1988, the shy, introspective 35 year old alt-country phenom from Lake Charles, Louisiana, arrived on the music scene and through sheer courage and strength of will propelled her self-titled debut into the best kept secret in pop music since Gram Parsons bumped Roger McGuinn from the Byrds, spawning in the process two of the best country hits never to hit number one in Nashville: "The Night's Too Long" and "Passionate Kisses."

Undaunted by the lack of airplay, she toured relentlessly over the next few years, and when she was finally ready, she released the beautiful, if dark, Sweet Old World. Williams’ perfectionism, her unwillingness to allow anything with her name on it to go out until she was completely satisfied, was a refreshing change of pace in an industry that spits out albums like bird seed in a pet store. Like the former album, once again airplay was sparse. But, over the years, Williams had developed a huge and loyal following of fans who came to admire and respect the principals she espoused in her songs. The nakedness of her singing, coupled with her ability to transcend pain into joy, to find something hopeful even when things don't often seem to be going your way may not have been what the record bizers wanted to hear, but the critics fell in love with her. Call her stubborn, but don't call her pretentious!

But it was 1998’s stunning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that finally brought her the recognition she so richly deserved. She won the grammy for best contemporary folk album the following year, and almost overnight her fan base doubled then tripled. Like it or not, she was now following in the grand tradition of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, with all the baggage that went along with it. No longer the best-kept secret among the alt-country scene, she was now among the most recognizable faces, not only of her genre, but in pop music in general.

Critics waited to see how she would handle it. They didn’t have to wait long. The next two albums, 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears, saw an artist being pulled toward compromise but never consumed by it. Both albums were easily her most accessible since her debut, but neither pushed the envelope in the way Car Wheels had. She was still the best at her craft, the best at letting her audience in to see her world, but now the engine that propelled her music was taking a fast lane. As Robert Christgau succinctly pointed out, “Like Dylan before her, she discovers how hard it is to write the simple ones.” Success hadn’t spoiled her, nor dulled her pen, put it did put a crimp in her style, which was always far more private than any of her fans or peers could have realized. The sweet old world she loved so much had gotten considerably smaller and a bit tarnished.

No wonder she took the next three years off before heading back to the studio to cut her next and latest album. Let’s cut right to the chase; West is nothing like she has ever recorded. It’s as different from her last two albums as Car Wheels was from Sweet Old World. But then that has always been Williams’ modus operandi. Familiarity and continuity are qualities she has never aspired to. Rather than try and reinvent past successes, she opts instead to reinvent herself. She can’t help but veer off in new directions; you could say it’s what’s kept her from falling victim to the same disease that has plagued lesser artists.

In past albums, however, Williams’ music, and more to the point, her words always drew you in, no matter how rustic they sounded. There was an attractiveness and charm to her songs that carried the listener regardless of the subject matter. West is about as unattractive and charmless an album as she has ever attempted. Not that attractiveness and charm are necessary ingredients to artistic integrity. Some of the greatest artworks are ugly, when they’re not down-right offensive. Maybe that is the problem. The album is neither attractive nor ugly. Robert Christgau has called it dull; I disagree. But it is, to put it mildly, uninvolving, even distant. I have played it three times, and still don’t know quite what to make of it. And there in lies the problem. Nothing on West leaps out and grabs you. Sure she can still write better than just about anybody out there, with the exception of Dylan, and maybe Amy Rigby, but I find myself too often straining to find significance or meaning in her lyrical landscape. I find myself respecting the songs more than enjoying them. Sure “Are You Alright” is a great song – one of her best ever, but Williams can’t build off of it. She seems mired in technique rather than the gut instinct, which has historically served her so well.

On the whole, the album passes muster, but more on talent than on delivery. Lucinda Williams is still one of the finest singer/songwriters of hers or any generation. That West will not be included among her finest albums, probably says more about her past achievements and the subsequent expectations they set for us and for her, than for any specific short-comings the album itself may have. Bruce Springsteen had similar triumphs and disappointments. Between 1973 and 1987, he released his three best albums, one of which - Born in the USA - was among the finest rock albums ever. However, he also released Greetings From Asbury Park and Darkness on the Edge of Town, proof that even the great ones are capable of pedestrian efforts. If West turns out to be Williams' Darkness, well that's fine with me. Like Springsteen, it just proves she's only human after all.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti, 2006) A.

REMEMBER when you were in school, there was always that kid who sat in the corner of the room, who never seemed to belong, who never participated in any of the class functions, who seemed aloof – perhaps detached would be a better word. He looked weird, as though someone forget to dress him properly in the morning. His grades were good, his attendance record above average, but there was just something about the guy that prevented you from getting to know him. Even the bullies would keep their distance. Then someone would crack a joke and from the corner of the room you’d hear a snicker – a half-muted laugh - from the guy. He was paying attention after all, he heard every word that was being spoken; he just chose that precise moment to chime in with his own two cents.

For 33 years now Tom Waits has been that kid in the corner of the room. The weird outcast who just didn’t seem to belong. Ever since Closing Time critics have been trying to classify his music and have failed miserably. And like the snickering kid who got the joke, even when the rest of us didn’t, Waits just kept on recording music his way: weird, aloof, detached from any genre or sub-genre the biz could concoct.

Not that there haven’t been sign posts where his music veered off in new and divergent paths. Swordfishtrombones represented for two decades the demarcation point between his bohemian, gin-soaked jazz/blues days (OK, that’s as close as I can get to defining what it was!) and the eclectic troubadour artiste he has been morphing into ever since. Not unlike his early albums, the music and the singing were ugly, except now it all seemed to make sense. Like a glove the warped sense of humor his fans have always cherished most about him came together brilliantly. That it even came into existence in the first place was owed directly to the persistence of then girlfriend, now wife, Kathleen Brennan, who after Asylum rejected the record, and then subsequently dropped Waits, convinced Island Records to give it a shot. The rest as they say in the biz is history.

But, whatever one may think of that record’s virtues, and I for one thought it had many, success, even for a recluse can be a hard road to travel. Rain Dogs, the follow-up, began for Waits a vicious cycle of vying for either an identity beyond what he had created or a recapturing of the moment of his greatness. For once in his life, he was the one telling the joke not merely laughing at it. Almost over night he had gone from the guy bumming a cigarette off of a patron to being able to buy the whole house a round. You could say he didn’t care, but you’d be wrong. For the next dozen or so years, he struggled artistically, even as his film career soared. It wasn’t until Mule Variations, 16 years later, that he finally seemed to make peace with himself. Again Brennan’s hand was evident. While I generally loath direct comparisons the album is a cross between the melancholy of Closing Time and the hope-filled minimalism of Swordfishtrombones. Imagine, an album about romanticism that isn’t self-indulgent; what a concept!

What followed was, you guessed it, more vying. Blood Money, Alice, and Real Gone showed he was more the romantic of Closing Time than the hopeful troubadour of Swordfishtrombones. Of the three, Blood Money was my pick. I’ve always operated under the premise that when in doubt less is more. Waits, for me, has always been at his best when he has aimed low. Grandiosity has, more often than not, boomeranged on him. You could say it has been his ambition that has gotten the better of him. But give the man some credit; his refusal to give up on himself as been his greatest attribute. He is indelible, if nothing else.

Which of course brings us to the main event: a 3-CD, 54-song album that reeks of grandiosity if ever any album did. A good album? Well let’s just say I wasn’t holding my breath. Then I played the damn thing. It was as if 33 years of music suddenly coalesced in front of me. This is the album the man has had in him for four decades, and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – let out. I have always suspected Waits of having multiple personalities, musically at least. Well now there’s proof.

Whether you subscribe to the theory that he is a mad man with a sentimental side, or a romantic lush with a mean streak, Orphans is proof of that age-old story of the chicken and the egg. The simple truth was and is that Waits is both. That it took him 33 years to finally come up with it is yet one more example of his indelibility. True Orphans started as a collection of outtakes - only 30 of the 54 songs are new, with 14 of the remaining appearing on other albums - but it quickly developed beyond that. The result was as ambitious a project as Waits as ever undertaken.

Seldom have I heard lyrics that speak of anguish and redemption along side revenge and cruelty. It’s as if Waits is sorry for pulling that girl’s hair in class, while at the same time enjoying the pain of the moment. Listen to the man’s own words: “What’s Orphans? I don’t know. Orphans is a dead end kid driving a coffin with big tires across the Ohio River wearing welding goggles and a wife beater with a lit firecracker in his ear.” He has always been the smart ass who couldn’t let on that he was a smart ass. This is his coming out party, if you will.

Pick a song, and you’ll probably find something of yourself in it. Disc two, Bawlers, is my personal favorite, and not merely for the Johnny Cash song “Down There By The Train” which Waits finally reclaims as his own. No, what impresses me most is how completely naked and vulnerable Waits allows himself to be. However gifted his music may have been, Waits has always had a problem letting his hair down. He has been guarded when it came to his emotions. He didn’t mind laughing at someone else’s jokes, but he shied away from self-reflection. He could tell “Martha” how much he still loved her after “forty years or more”, but look in the mirror and ask the obvious question, “Dude, why are you still living in the past?” Never! I suspect the answer was that the engine behind Waits’ lyrics has always been the regret of what might have been. Pain was OK, so long as it was somebody else’s pain. On Swordfishtrombones, the girl he just couldn’t live without in “Johnsburg, Illinois” was as close as he’s ever gotten to letting us in. But just to make sure we didn’t think him a sap, the next song on that album was “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six.” Waits could kill the ending to “Old Yeller” if you gave him half a chance.

Fortunately, on Orphans, his killer instinct, at least for now, has been shelved. The result is as secure and (gulp) mature an album as you will likely find. At 56, Waits has finally grown up. We finally get a chance to see him not as the recluse who didn’t fit in, but the scared kid that nobody bothered to get to know, who listened to everything everybody said, and who now has something relevant to say about his life that finally isn’t a punch line about somebody else’s. Like he says in the song, “I always take the long way home.” I’d say 33 years is long enough. Welcome home, Tom, stay a while.

Saturday, February 10, 2007



1. Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia)
2. Ghostface Killah: Fishscale (Def Jam)
3. The Klezmatics: Wonder Wheel (JMG)
4. Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti)
5. Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (Capitol)
6. Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
7. The Streets: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic)
8. Joanna Newsom: Ys (Drag City)
9. Outkast: Idlewild (LeFace)
10. Todd Snider: The Devil You Know (New Door)
11. Maria Muldaur: Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (Telarc)
12. The Coup: Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
13. Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time (Hyenna)
14. Wussy: Funeral Dress (Shake It)
15. Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (Piranha)
16. The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury: Songs From a Series of Unfortunate Events (Nonesuch)
17. Clipse: Hell Hath No Fury (Zomba/Star Trek/Re-Up Gang)
18. Jesus H. Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (www.jesushchristrocks.com)
19. Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not (Domino)
20. Toumani Diabates Symmetric Orchestra: Boulevard de I’Independence (Nonesuch)
21. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)
22. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
23. Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)
24. Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (Matador)
25. Kimya Dawson: Remember That I Love You (K)
26. Rhett Miller: The Believer (Verve Forecast)
27. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
28. Beck: The Information (Interscope)
29. The Rapture: Pieces of the People We Love (Motown/Vertigo)
30.TV on the Radio: Return To Cookie Mountain (Interscope)
31. Rominca Puceanu & the Gore Brothers: Sounds From a Bygone Age, Vol 2 (Asphalt Tango)
32. Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Geffen)
33. The Handsome Family: Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top)
34. The Go-Betweens: That Striped Sunlight Sound (Yep Roc)
35. Grandaddy: Just Like the Fambly Cat (V2)
36. Sir Douglas Quintet: Live From Austin, Tx (New West)
37. Public Enemy: Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk)
38. Tom Ze: Estudando O Pagode (Luka Bop)
39. Pink: I'm Not Dead (LeFace/Zomba)
40. Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (Frenchkiss)