Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda WilliamsLucinda Williams Rough Trade ROUGH US 47 (1988)

Lucinda was a key voice in the emergence of what would be called insurgent or alt(ernative) country.  What separate this kind of country from others was, above all, the affinity for a less working class, more urban audience.  It metastasized through the influence from the rock world.  Lucinda Williams was released on a record label associated with what was then known as college rock, whose biggest act, well, ever, was the jangle-pop post-punk outfit The Smiths.  The connection between these audiences is immediately apparent in the jangle rock trappings of the album’s single, “Passionate Kisses,” which sounds only a half step away from an R.E.M. hit.  But it’s also there on the opener “I Just Want to See You So Bad,” which has organ backing and some thin, icy guitar riffs that resemble vaguely Elvis Costello.  She’s name-checking the gritty urban modern rock of The Velvet Underground in the liner notes too.  But Lucinda still sings with a clear and light yet sturdy southern twang — her voice here is smoother, more athletic and nimble (not unlike Sheryl Crow) than the grittier, coarser instrument it became years later.  Among everything brought to bear on the album, the country roots are still a dominant force.  In the slower patches (“Big Red Sun Blues,” “Am I Too Blue”) there are echoes of what Emmylou Harris was doing in the 1980s, though with considerably more bite (Emmylou was dreadfully boring then).  The biggest feature is that Lucinda embodies the Texas strain of country music, not (underlined) the Nashville establishment.  This was the sort path leading from Austin, TX that Willie Nelson beat out years earlier (albeit to New York City rather than L.A.).  She was doing something similar, but with a host of new influences.

Lyrically, Lucinda is really great at bringing out a female perspective.  These aren’t the usual songs about some guy chasing after girls who frankly would prefer the protagonist wouldn’t, Lucinda sings about turning away and shedding the burdens brought on by male companions.  So we have “Changed the Locks” (“I changed the lock on my front door / So you can’t see me anymore”), “Side of the Road” (“I wanna know you’re there, but I wanna be alone / If only for a minute or two”) and so on.  But even if some of these share some of characteristics of the “guy breaking away from social bonds” theme of so much music in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that perspective is totally re-contextualized coming from a woman.  Of course, that isn’t all we get.  She’s also singing about longing (“I Just Wanted to See You so Bad”), ambition (“The Night’s Too Long”), growth (“Crescent City”), and all the other flotsam and jetsam or everyday life.  People like to say her songs seem lived in.  That’s about right.

For all its highlights (“Passionate Kisses,” “Side of the Road,” “Changed the Locks”), Lucinda Williams still has its misfires.  There is plenty of filler and quite a few songs that seem to speak to an audience that isn’t around anymore.  Some of these performances plod along, and on the receiving end it feels like being stuck listening to somebody speaking at a microphone who is slowing down the tempo of the room to the point that everyone has to come to a halt and listen, rather than continue on with their lives and absorb the words into ones now richer for the experience.  Nothing is bad, exactly, but some of this seems to overstay its welcome.

This was still a jolt to the notion that country music wouldn’t or couldn’t appeal to the generation of disaffected urban youths listening to rock music who came up after the punk explosion.  The influence?  It echoed long after this album.  Leading insurgent Country magazine No Depression‘s “artist of the decade” in the 1990s, Alejandro Escovedo, was cribbing bits of this more than a decade later (he borrowed guitar licks from “Like a Rose” for “Follow You Down” on A Man Under the Influence and her “Crescent City” seems to be imbued in his “I Was Drunk” from Bourbonitis Blues).  Just like with the aforementioned Mr. Willie Nelson, Lucinda made it seem like a lot of different strains of music could coalesce into something that seemed unlike the specifics of any of the sources.  Part of that appeal was to the vanity of the audience, distinguishing themselves as being above the fray of parochial musical genre boundaries.  But, again, Lucinda was doing much more than offering that kind of flattery.  Her music was reflective, even pensive, taking the time to inhabit its worlds and actually embody its contours in subtle detail rather than just describe its themes from without, in a period when a lot of music was done in high contrast, without any shades of gray.  If this was a little shaky at times, aside from its rather magnificent highlights, Lucinda still had much more to come.

Lucinda Williams – Blessed


Lucinda WilliamsBlessed Lost Highway (2011)

Lucinda still has it here.  She juggles a few different styles on Blessed.  There is some stuff in Steve Earle/Bruce Springsteen mode (“Buttercup”), some in the “atmospheric” style of producer Daniel Lanois‘ efforts on Teatro, Time Out of Mind, etc. (“Kiss Like Your Kiss”), and plenty of acoustic guitar-driven singer-songwriter stuff (most of the middle of the album).  But, per usual, you get a woman’s perspective that allows the songs to transcend whatever similarities they may have in structure to music from the boys.

U2 – The Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

U2The Joshua Tree Island U2 6 (1987)

I suppose it’s all the rage to trash this, but I would have to be a real dick to do that.  It is so popular and well known that it is just too easy to take pot shots at.  The thing is, it’s great and most bands would be lucky to ever make an album half this good.  Music geeks: get over the fact that this appeals to more people than the cult/underground/indie crap you love.  Its wide appeal makes it no less valid.  U2’s music really only works when they focus on the winsome romanticism that propels most of this album.  When they try to sound like “legendary rockers”,  the “newest reinvention of rock”, a copy of any number of post-punk groups, or some other appropriation, which sorry to say is most of the time, they sound positively contrived and annoying, with emphasis on the annoying part (uh, Bono, looking in your direction).  I can’t say this is a particular favorite of mine, but it’s a classic nonetheless.

Wire – Pink Flag

Pink Flag

WirePink Flag Harvest SHSP 4076 (1977)

Wire weren’t particularly proficient on their instruments but they thought their way around that obstacle. Pink Flag is a triumph of intellect. It’s an album of rare inspiration. Art schoolers who take up music often find a way to make it interesting. Necessity is the operative word here. Wire was driven by what they needed to do and they didn’t bother with anything else. If they went out of their way to do anything it was to make a largely uncharacterizable rock album.  This music is about texture. Two or three chords can make it happen. Rhythm is the principal gear that keeps the machine grinding forward — through poverty, scandal, hate, sex, and divinity with a careful posture.   Pink Flag has no middle ground. It is primal throughout but still smartly profound. This happens without references to politics, common for Wire’s peers. The angular guitar slashes cross Colin Newman’s sly cackle. This is a bold album. It’s funny and silly too. The group knew they were in it together. The concept didn’t require any individual show of force; there aren’t solos.   These crafty songs don’t have to be long. Some are short as to be more interludes. This advances only the group’s essential notions. “Strange” has an ominous low-end rumble fueling rebellion. “Ex Lion Tamer” has mocking social eyes. Then “Three Girl Rhumba” and “Champs” are diametrically opposed as far as use of space. “Reuters” challenges what passes for everyday events and perhaps who profits off the system. “Start to Move” and “1 2 X U” alternately plead and observe. Though minimalism is a common thread, each song is unique. Within Pink Flag, Wire constantly rethink their approach. This keeps the album more enduring than obvious. The pace never halts. Pink Flag does subtly dance some modern steps, keeping every movement precisely trained on a desired result. Their repertoire is deceptively diverse. Each song tells nothing of what the next holds.   Popular music traditions aren’t abandoned so much as they simply aren’t needed. Wire use knowledge of visual arts instead. They don’t feel obligated to play songs in any familiar way. “Lowdown” and “1 2 X U” are degenerate deconstructions of rock music. Newman crams the lyrics into any form, deleting intelligibility (the way Television used a photocopy of a Robert Mapplethorpe photo for the Marquee Moon cover). This places extreme force behind everything on the record. Wire coax you out of your illusions then halt. There is no ignoring this unexpected music. Pink Flag is an essential. This music is a welcomed alternative to the prodigal pop music wasteland. Wire got it right by (musically) screwing everything up.

Gang of Four – Songs of the Free

Songs of the Free

Gang of FourSongs of the Free EMI EMC 3412 (1982)

I don’t really buy into the usual story about Gang of Four—that Entertainment! was a classic, Solid Gold was almost as good, and the rest was more or less sellout garbage.  No sir, I don’t agree with that view at all.  Granted, Entertainment! is a classic.  Solid Gold, though, is mighty uneven.  At its best, it is as good as anything on Entertainment! or elsewhere; the worst songs kind of drag, unfortunately, so I always have a hankering to skip past a few.  Certainly, things changed with Songs of the Free.  Only three original members remained, and there was definitely something more “pop” (or “new wave”) in the band’s sound.  This, in and of itself, means nothing.  Fans who demand that the group operate stuck in one gear, churning out the same funk-punk melange forever have unfairly pigeonholed the band.  If that’s what you expect, you will be disappointed here, just as folky Tim Buckley fans were probably disappointed when he put out the funky rock of Greetings from L.A.  But it’s better to grant a band some leeway to explore different areas, especially when dealing with a great band like Gang of Four.  What they do on Songs of the Free in new areas, which included the addition of great female background vocals, is to adopt a more sarcastic and insolent stance that used some of the musical techniques that represented the most repugnant qualities of the era and turn them against their common mainstream purposes.  It may be hard to point to any one song on Songs of the Free and count it among the group’s very best.  But instead of highlights, this album is pretty consistently good throughout.  The follow-up Hard is even more pop-focused, and while definitely unessential, it is still a solid pop album, with two strong opening tracks.  So, anybody listening to U2 albums (War) instead of Gang of Four’s in the early 1980s was probably missing out.

The Persuasions – Street Corner Symphony

Street Corner Symphony

The PersuasionsStreet Corner Symphony Capitol ST-872 (1971)

The Persuasions were there when they sang!  Their music inhabited a place that was right on the pulse of what matters in music that stands the test of time.  So much soul, so much determination.  This music pulls no punches.  Being a cappella harmony music, there is little room for mistakes–any mistakes are immediately apparent.  But this one is just about note perfect.  The a cappella format also provides nothing to fall back on.  The singers have to put themselves out there all the time.  There are no backing instruments to fill in, provide cover, or provide support.  That’s ultimately what makes this music so special.  It’s a “street corner symphony” because it is music that requires nothing, no instruments, no gimmicks, just voices.  You could make this music on the street corner.  But it’s rich and refined.  It stands on equal footing with any symphony in terms of depth.  The best of this type of music, like doo-wop, provides for relatively unguarded emotional outpouring.  The Persuasions can sound sensitive and intimate, with the group harmonies preventing it from sounding cloistered.  Lead singer Jerry Lawson had this amazing phrasing where he starts a note then holds it and adds in vibrato with a kind of gritty crackle.  It just knocks you over.  Great tunes here too.  “Buffalo Soldier” is the perfect opener, and Bob Dylan‘s “The Man in Me” is a good choice.  Plus there are more obvious selections, from the catalogs of The Impressions, The Temptations, Dixie Hummingbirds, etc.  Coming in 1971, though, long after doo-wop faded in popularity, The Persuasions had the space to free themselves from any fads or expectations.  They can just make music that matters to them.  That is always a recipe for success.  So this still feels as fresh as the day it was recorded, and will probably still have an impact on listeners well into the future too.