Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
There's a 10-year gap between Lucinda Williams' self-titled third record and her fifth, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Both are brilliant, although the difference between the two is massive. The first is a colorful snapshot, the second its darker, more haunting negative. In 1988, Williams had recorded only one album of archival country and blues covers (1979's Ramblin') and a perfunctory collection of likable originals (1980's Happy Woman Blues). What she came up with on Lucinda Williams was both a surprise and a masterpiece: 12 original songs of uncompromised country music, merging her love of Robert Johnson with a knack for lyrics that were efficient yet moving, as befits a poet's daughter.
Just through its very existence, Koch International's welcome reissue of the album -- out of print since the original label, Rough Trade, went bankrupt in 1991 -- re-establishes Williams' place in music history, and the six bonus tracks, mostly live, provide further testament. There're more country blues covers, as well as a strong, spare take on "Something About What Happens When We Talk" and a hymnlike lament, "Sunday." In 1988, Williams was energetically looking for a middle ground between old truths and new ones, but at its best, Lucinda Williams was a pop album. She sang of loss and heartbreak, and how all she wanted was "food to fill me up and warm clothes and all that stuff," but those words were drenched with shimmering chords and her clear, gorgeous soprano.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is just drenched. Williams' voice is weary and worn, and there's no stab at pop clarity here; it's the coarsest, roughest album she's ever made. Singing the disc's 13 songs, Williams sounds older than her years -- 45 -- and many of the tracks themselves feel even older, as if Williams'd finally tuned into the instincts of her 78rpm heroes and found a way to add her own voice to them. When she first recorded "I Lost It" for Happy Woman Blues, she sang it like a hoedown number, fiddles sawing and soaring as she pined for a lost love. On the new version recorded for Car Wheels, she sounds frightened and pleading. The happy fiddles are replaced with slower, dirgey electric guitars, and she sings like she's lost hope completely: "I feel like I might blow away" was a stock cliche the first time around; now it's filled with blood and pain, a bruise.
That hurt in her voice -- and the growth in maturity that it represents -- may have sprung from the five-year process of recording the album itself. Williams went through a string of record labels and producers as critics wrote that she was incapable of finishing the record, doing herself in with self-doubt and a domineering attitude in the studio. Even without delving into the world of gossip and contracts, though, it's obvious that Williams has worked to give each word -- each note of her songs -- a rare depth and power. Which doesn't make Car Wheels an easy listen. Except for a straight ballad that clearly telegraphs its lovelorn message, "Still I Long for Your Kiss," the songs are dense and gorgeous tangles of words. The sound is rock steeped in authentic country blues -- dobros, slide guitars, accordions, organs -- but Williams' voice is what makes it new. When she chants "June bug versus hurricane" on "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," it's a perfect summation of the lives of the dive-bar sufferers she sings about. "Right in Time" is a celebration of love and sex, but she sings with a worn and languid voice: We never find out if her lover is in the same room with her or gone away, and the throaty "Ohhhhhhhh ... my baby" could be either the sound of pining or satisfaction. Either way, a lesser country singer -- like Mary Chapin-Carpenter, who made a hit out of Williams' "Passionate Kisses" -- would flub that line, making it whiny or mock-orgasmic.
It's the angry, stomping blues of "Joy" that is the album's centerpiece. It's a song about how far Williams'll take her outrage: "You took my joy/ I want it back," she barks, 10 times. But she'll get it without a handout, thank you very much: "I'll find my joy," she sings, 12 times. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is that sort of album, balancing damage with redemption, loss with determination, from the friend who died looking for Louisiana in the poignant "Lake Charles" to the soaring sense of independence Williams sings about in the closing "Jackson." It's cuts and blood and bile and wrinkles, bravely exposed for anybody who dares to open his eyes to see it.
-- Mark Athitakis
Arches and Aisles
Rebecca Gates, singer/songwriter for the Spinanes, has built her musical career on terms of intimacy. Lyrically and musically, her work is all hands and whispers. The immediate grasp of the first Spinanes album, Manos, invited listeners to stroll around between her ears. Founded in Portland in 1991, the threadbare Spinanes featured only two members: Gates on guitar and vocals; Scott Plouf on drums. The pair were strikingly complementary. Plouf's dead-on skinny-tie impulsion filled every rhythmic nook and cranny while Gates' gliding guitar and cozy vocals shaped and defined the duo's legato sound. After 1996's Strand, Plouf packed up his set to join annoying fuzz-popsters Built to Spill. The amicable split handed Gates the opportunity to tour and record with various collaborators and, most significantly, all by herself.
This past spring, she embarked upon an unconventional and grotesquely alternamarketed solo tour of Urban Outfitters stores. In justifying such tasteless corporate affiliations, Gates might say that the tour allows people who would never take a chance with the Spinanes to hear her. The glazed murmur and delicate tone to Arches and Aisles, Gates' first solo album, likewise bids listeners of myriad persuasions to share in her explorations. Gates assembles a group of indie lifers, including John McEntire (Tortoise), Jerry Busher (Fidelity Jones), and popular Memphis studio engineer/producer Doug Easley.
The biggest problem with the resulting 43-minute album is its unfortunate lack of dramatic highs or lows. This is a polite way of saying it's kind of boring. Gates' lulling vocals repeat throughout with limited inflection -- which is either the key to her entrancing delivery or merely tedious. "Kid in Candy" begins with compound Middle Eastern rhythms set between hand-drum percussion and a syncopated cymbal/snare shuffle. Whispered electric guitar and mellotron hover in the distance as Gates nestles into the microphone and coos, "Take a shine to the West Coast heaven/ Looking best when we're together." That confusing lyric, along with most of her mumbled words, is delivered with all the clarity of a woman thinking out loud. The supine soul of "Greetings From the Sugar Lick" touches upon Al Green's silken balladry, replete with breathy singing and a throbbing bass line. "Reach vs. Speed" hums with tremolo and feathery guitars. Gates' soaring drawl wraps around the chanting voice of her duet partner, Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake.
A weary piano and staggering beat meander around an ascending plucked guitar on "Den Trawler." The instrumental flirtation turns into a syrupy melody as Gates chides, "Your tongue, so close to torture/ With everything it seeks." She reaches for composure, withdrawing as the music collapses and fades.
-- Dave Clifford
Johnny Cash/Willie Nelson
The best country performers spin the best yarns. The genre itself thrives on accessible stories of rough outlaws struggling to remain standing, common folk looking for reasons to get out of bed, and tattered outsiders trying to find a place in the world. No one has better stories to tell than Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Ordinarily, a collection pairing Cash and Nelson for a rehash of well-worn greatest hits wouldn't deserve more than passing mention. Certainly the meeting itself isn't noteworthy: The two have played together -- along with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings -- in the country supergroup the Highwaymen since 1985. And most of the songs on VH1 Storytellers are hardly rare: "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Crazy" are played-out and overrecorded. But this live record sounds more like a good ol'-fashioned guitar pull than two old-timers rerecording classics in a television studio. As Cash writes in his cryptic liner notes, "The audience was three-feet away, boxing us in -- we pick, but we know not what we pick." That nervous spontaneity -- and the stories themselves -- keep this hourlong set vibrantly fresh.
The players' spare, two-guitar approach focuses attention on each song's internal narrative. But the record's strength is the sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious stories behind the songs themselves. Cash's explanations create new meaning for his recent work. He explains "Drive On," from his 1994 "comeback" album, as another way for Vietnam soldiers to keep moving in the face of nightmarish tragedy. The introduction takes just another first-person war song and lifts it into something much more haunting and tangible.
Cash's voice sounds as strong as ever, particularly on "Unchained" and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." Nelson's salty solo on "Funny How Time Slips Away" reminds the audience that he's one of country's most evocative guitar players. While Cash's deep baritone and Nelson's nasally phrasing surprisingly complement each other on "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" and the throwaway "On the Road Again," it's the individual readings that stand out. When each, at the request of the other, delivers one in a pair of painful love ballads -- Cash on "I Still Miss Someone" and Nelson on a heartfelt rescue of the usually sappy "Always on My Mind" -- you can almost hear the tears. Cash feels the sentiment, moaning, "Yeah," at the end of Nelson's song. It's the lyrics that deliver the story, but it's the singer who makes him cry.
-- Dave McCoy