Monday, March 13, 2023

Video Killed the Magazine Star?

From the March 1989 issue of Stereo Review, here are my thoughts on Lucinda Williams' debut on Rough Trade. As you'll discover at the bottom of the post, I have a good reason for bringing it to your attention.
The first time I played the new Lucinda Williams album, I started to think about my late colleague Noel Coppage. Noel used to keep a list in these pages of what he called "Real People," an appellation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the early-Eighties TV show; instead, he was talking about performers, specifically musicians. To my knowledge, Noel never heard Lucinda Williams, although she's knocked around for over a decade, but if he had, or if he'd lived to hear her remarkable eponymous debut album, I'm sure he would have added Williams to his small, select list. This woman is as real as it gets.

The idiom here is basic rock, country, and blues. The songs, all written by Williams, except for one by Howlin' Wolf, are anecdotal, sharply observed, and by turns wry and poignant. But what makes them really special (not to discount the fine performances by her obviously simpatico band) is Williams herself: She has the kind of voice that suggests the rise and fall of empires as witnessed through the bottom of a shot glass. It's an instrument worthy of the Bonnie Raitt comparisons it most often draws, but there's an edge to Williams's singing, a raw, wounded, and utterly soulful quality, that also suggests a male honkytonker like Gram Parsons. As a result, Williams really doesn't sound like any other woman rocker currently working, and listening to her album was an experience that hit me about as hard as falling in love.

There are moments in Lucinda Williams that verge on the merely ordinary. "Crescent City," for example, rocks along quite nicely and is obviously felt, but it's a fairly prosaic reminiscence nonetheless. Mostly, though, the music will make you laugh ("Changed the Locks") or break your heart ("Abandoned"), sometimes both in the same song ("Passionate Kisses"). Even in an era when it's suddenly, suspiciously, fashionable to be a smart solo woman in rock, Lucinda Williams is clearly something special, and I suggest you hear it immediately. Meanwhile, Noel, I think we've got another Real Person here.

As I said up top, I have a good reason for foisting the above on you.

To wit: Late last week, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from an associate producer at CBS Sunday Morning who wanted to know if I in fact had written the line "She has the kind of voice that suggests the rise and fall of empires as witnessed through the bottom of a shot glass."

Because they were working on an upcoming profile of Williams, and they were thinking of quoting me on air. Ain't that a kick in the pants?

Anyway, he assured me he'd let me know if, in fact, my little bon mot made the cut (the segment is due to run in a couple of weeks). And of course, I'll let you guys know as well.

Can you tell I'm insufferably pleased about this?


getawaygoober said...

Will you be doing an update on the Stereo Review article called My Front Pages / Things I Like? Great list of random "items" in music... from teeth to screams.

JB said...

I don't think Lucinda has ever put out a bad record. Looking forward to the profile piece.

Jai Guru Dave said...

As you should be! The album with “Car Wheels” on it is one of the best I’ve ever heard, top to bottom.
Be sure to let us know when that piece is going to air on TV, with or without your quote.
Great to have you back, by the way.

Marc said...

I've been a fan ever since I heard Passionate Kisses on the radio (RIP, WHFS). Hard to believe it's been 34 years, but it has. I will have to look out for that CBS Sunday Morning piece.


ChrisE said...

If you ever doubt the power of reviews - yours or anyone else's - you should know that your specific write-up on this album made me seek it out. As a matter of fact, I had a record dealer pal of mine, who got Rough Trade stuff in regularly, save me a copy so I would not miss out on it. And I certainly never regretted buying it. One correction, though: this was Lucinda's first album for Rough Trade, but it was not her debut album; she had recorded two previously, several years earlier, for the Rounder label.

SteveS said...

Call me a heretic, but I think any comparison between Williams' singing and Bonnie Raitt's is REALLY stretching it. I like them both, but I'd prefer to listen to Raitt's singing 9 times out of 10. Your quote is way more apropos, though. I hope they go with it.

M_Sharp said...

That's a great tribute, that someone remembered one line from 34 years ao!

Jim G said...

Nice post. I take it CBS won't be interviewing noted Lucinda hater Greil Marcus for this piece. I recall him once saying that he's never believed a word she'd sung, or something to that effect.