* MAY ALBUM OF THE MONTH *
(5 / 5)
Back in the 70s when I had a 28” waist and only one chin, the Sex Pistols were making history and “outraged” front-page headlines by use of the “C” word live on TV. The music they made became a side show.
Punk’s main ingredients were anger, power, energy and above all else, attitude. But many could not play or sing, and a lot of the songs were piss poor.
So imagine if you had all of that anger, that power, that energy and above all else, that snarling attitude – and a dozen killer songs, with a voice that sounded like it’s fuelled by gasoline and razor blades.
No imagination needed. May I introduce you to Lucinda Williams and her utterly stunning new album, “Good Souls Better Angels”. Album number 14 in her catalogue and to my ears, a shoo-in for Grammy number four for her mantelpiece.
A dozen cuts, all but one, originals. Lucinda wrote two and co-wrote nine with Tom Overby. Her manager and her husband for the last decade or so. It’s a decent pairing as regards the strength of the material.
Her usual biographical lyrics deal with uber-personal issues, brutally honest about her own battles, demons and self-perceived flaws and failings.
But this set changes course to tackle social injustice, domestic abuse, the non-stop conveyor belt of shitty news we are bombarded with on a 24-hour cycle, a-holes hiding behind social media and even a dig at the current incumbent of the Whitehouse.
Some 22 years after her commercial breakthrough album, “Car Wheels O A Gravel Road” in 1998, Lucinda calls in producer and engineer Ray Kennedy who worked on that album, to co produce this one with her and Tom Overby.
It seems like a bit of a dream team based on the results. They made the record at Ray Kennedy’s vintage-equipped Nashville studio.
The ace up her sleeve is her long-time guitarist Stuart Mathis, who takes my breath away with almost every lick, on guitar and slide. What a player….what a tone….so inventive and in his own lane as an axe monster. Truly the best guitar work I have heard on any recording this year. By far.
The production on the guitar parts take you right up close to the amp’, as though you are stood in that studio as he cranks out his parts, and plays out of his skin. Wow!
Her road band of Mathis, Butch Norton on drums and David Sutton on bass, could not have been beaten for their contribution. Zero need or room for star guests here. Lucinda and her boys are the dog’s…
Just under an hour’s playing time here. Lucinda’s unmistakable Louisiana drawl is present from the off, as are Stuart’s awesome guitar licks, on “You Can’t Rule Me”. The groove is nailed, the chills run up and down the spine. She is well and truly back!
The opener has a raw Wilko Johnson strut to it, and a Ramones meets Chrissie Hynde contemptuous vibe to it.
The pace slows for the second cut, the moody, Tom Waits-style “Bad News Blues”, and again Lucinda’s vocal is pure Lucinda – the guitar work icing on the cake. The slinky blues solo is blissful and inventive. Mathis is the man.
She has a venomous pop at the POTUS on the slow burn and quietly bitter, “Man Without A Soul”. Some atmospheric slide guitar work adds nicely to the sinister vibes.
“Big Black Train” was from an idea by Tom Overby, about depression and despair, where Lucinda’s service to the song makes us 100% sure this is her singing about what she knows. The song could be a Dylan, Waits or Cohen song.
When Johnny Cash made his last recordings and was totally himself, warts and all, his voice cracking and you could hear and feel the wear and tear from all those years of excess and hard living…..
Well, some of same thing here. In fact, I cannot help hearing Pogues’ singer Shane McGowan’s unorthodox vocal delivery in some of Lucinda’s unrestrained moments, as bonkers as that thought may come across in black and white!
This’d be a career-making album for most. But for the legendary Lucinda, she’s still got much more to give us, at the age of 67, I am sure of that.
“Wakin’ Up”, penned by Lucinda about domestic abuse, is a ready-made cut for a Film Noir soundtrack; with a brush strokes of twangy guitar and Link Wray flavours, and a punchy pissed off vocal from Lucinda. A track that grows in stature the more you hear it.
“Pray The Devil Back To Hell”, strips things back, and is not the only track to mention the devil in this set.
Laid back Lucinda on the lovely ballad “Shadows & Doubts”, with sparse backing and ‘less is more’ production values. She soars for the first time on her vocal on this record. Close your eyes and you can hear The Big O dueting from heaven with the Big LW.
Mr Mathis’ guitar solo will make you well up. Make a note: Track seven, “Shadows & Doubts” – a song about trial by social media, is bloody magnificent…. Passion and truth writ large.
Things stay chilled with “When The Way Gets Dark”, with a moody but quite beautiful ballad, which gives hope through troubled times: “You’re gonna be alright, you’re gonna be OK. Don’t give up, you have a reason to carry on, Don’t give up, take my hand, don’t ever fall”….Tarantino-esque soundtrack ripe.
The fabulous Lucinda-penned “Bone Of Contention”, brings us back to some good old rock and roll. That snare drum will slice your ears off! Drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton locked in like a pair of exocet missiles.
Lucinda growls and rasps her way through a sleazy and spittin’ vocal on a cut which builds in intensity. Until it explodes with frenzied fretboard fireworks complete with wah wah. Mick, Keef, Charlie and co would eat this up and spit it out Stones-stylee. Stadium rock at its best!
A cover now, with Greg Garing’s “Down Past The Bottom”. Old Diablo gets another name check on this one, with its slight rockabilly feel. A song that sounds like a trademark Lucinda-penned ditty and a tight fit. Her fiery vocal’s just great.
Penultimate cut, “Big Rotator”, was the only track of the collection that didn’t quite hit the target, for me.
Proceedings come to a close with “Good Souls”, offering up some of Lucinda’s most soulful and heart-wrenching vocals yet, as she encourages us to take the path of promise and perseverance.
The track features some very tasteful and restrained guitar licks from Stuart Mathis, adding to the ethereal vibes, swooping in and out of the emotion-soaked vocals.
Tech’-obsessed producers all want to make things sound nice. Polished to hell. Slinging lots of effects at everything to play with their studio toys and “plug-ins”. Well, thankfully not this time.
There’s nothing at all nice about any of this. It’s as raw and edgy as it should be for a Lucinda Williams album. There’d be nothing worse than an over-produced Lucinda record.
So if you ever hear anyone utter the phrase, “Yeah, it’s a nice album” after playing them “Good Souls Better Angels”, kindly remove a shoe – either one – and aim for the head!
She’s rebellious, abrasive, aggressive – but at the same time, sensitive and in fleeting moments, even perhaps vulnerable. But at all times, Lucinda Gayle Williams is downright masterful at her vocation. Because she’ not trying. This is no act. As always….
On “Good Souls Better Angels,” there’s fire, and there’s flames. Scorn and punishment. Pain. Fear. Loathing and disdain. Despair too.
But also hope and encouragement, and a defiant message to stay strong and to battle on through. To rely on your true friends to help get you there.
Now doesn’t that sound like the right mission statement for our current global shit storm? I do believe it does. How’s about: Lucinda Williams for President….
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’