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Lucinda Williams

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – 1998 (Mercury)

Reviewed by Brian Steinberg

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CDs by Lucinda Williams

The wait is over - and it was justified. Long known for agonizing over her albums, Lucinda Williams has finally-after more than five years - delivered, and the result is perhaps one of the decade's best recordings. Produced at various times by Roy Bittan and Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, this sounds magnificent and contains songs so well-polished that Williams' earlier (and wonderful) work only hinted she was possible of producing them.

Williams' songs are as much poetry as they are music. In a style reminiscent of Ernest Hemmingway, a simple phrase often speaks volumes. In "Right In Time," the album opener, she sings to an absent lover, "I take off my watch and my earrings/My bracelets and everything/Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling" And then, the breathy finish: "Oh, my baby." The passion and longing are palpable. "Still I Long For Your Kiss," co-written with Duane Jarvis, echoes the sentiment in an equally sensuous fashion (another version appears on the "The Horse Whisperer" soundtrack) "2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten" and the title track talk about the desire to fight convention and small-town regulation in a manner that evokes Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" - at least, lyrically.

Like her lyrics, Williams uses only the basics, and still manages to create a full sound. Accordion, slide guitar and vocals from such luminaries as Jim Lauderdale, Earle and Charlie Sexton add atmosphere where necessary. Still, the true sound of this record is anchored in Williams' aching voice, Gurf Morlix' stunning guitar and the crackle and thump of John Ciambotti's bass and Donald Lindley's drums. Set in and around small towns in Louisiana and the south, "Car Wheels" becomes a small novel of modern life below the Mason-Dixon. There's not a misstep here. The results are stunning, and we have a record as important as - or better than - Earle's "Guitar Town."