There's little left to be said when it comes the link between quality songs and Lucinda Williams. From her early days to her commercial breakthrough with 1998's "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," Williams has always created her own heartfelt nuggets that can be equally haunting and rocking. And this newest release is perhaps her most ambitious effort to date, a 2-disc, 20-track album, starting with the barren "Compassion" that recalls some precious combination of Linda Thompson and Marianne Faithfull. Later on the first true highlight is "East Side Of Town," which is as Americana as one can possibly hope for or aspire to. And, fortunately, she gives the listener everything on a fully fleshed-out closing.
But as is expected, Williams moves away from one genre to another as is her nature, veering off with the groovier bluesy "Protection," a nifty little keeper not too far from Bonnie Raitt's wheelhouse. It's a comfortable turn to take and one she does sinfully easily. It's also something she returns to with a similar blueprint in "Foolishness." However, that comfort factor occasionally makes for some very good but not stellar performances. This is especially true on "Burning Bridges," which sounds like Williams is cruising through the song with little passion until the Petty-esque homestretch. And on the second disc, "Walk On" seems to suffer a rather Williams-by-numbers fate.
Probably Williams' greatest moment is on the slow, soulful "Cold Day In Hell," shining front and center behind an old-school, but solid arrangement. Here Williams almost nails the song with a hymnal tone despite the lyrics suggesting forgiveness is the last thing on her mind. Meanwhile "West Memphis" has a laid back feel despite referrals to the infamous West Memphis Three case. And as for the first disc's finale "It's Gonna Rain," she is spot on with a dusty, somber vocal that glides along like some old-time country staple. The vocal help from Jakob Dylan on this track doesn't hurt either.
The quality of the material rarely drops on the second half of the album with an infectious little ditty "Something Wicked This Way Comes" John Hiatt might be quite envious of. When she slows it down to a tender crawl, as is the way she works it on "Big Mess," it is anything but a big mess. More like a beautifully crafted slow-dance number. From there the funky country vibe rears its hip-swaying head with "Everything But The Truth," which oozes an oomph in the vein of "Joy" or "Change The Locks." Perhaps the sleeper of the 20 here is the soothing "One More Day," recalling '50s doo wop from start to finish.
This is an ambitious record, which could have faltered in the hands of someone else. But to use a line from the album, Lucinda Williams makes the most of what equipment she's got! It's an artist at her essence.