Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23: Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road"

Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Year: 1998
Label: Mercury

Often times, it takes a musician a bit of time to hit their stride when it comes to releasing records. Over a twenty year span, Lucinda Williams released five albums. Then, over the next ten years, she released just as many. While she has had a cult-like following since her 1979 debut, it took more than twenty years for her to gain commercial success. Coming more than six years after her previous effort, Lucinda's 1998 release, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is absolutely spectacular, as easily the best album of her distinguished career.

Bringing her signature style of folk based, country-rock, Lucinda Williams has been hailed as the female Bob Dylan since she appeared on the music scene in 1979. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was actually recorded in 1993, but unsatisfied with its sound, Williams tossed the recordings and began a search for a new production team. Working with legends like Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, and Roy Bittan, the album was mixed by the one and only, Rick Rubin. Still unhappy with the sound, Lucinda took a well documented 3 years, overdubbing and re-mixing the album. It is due to this lengthy post-recording process that the album sounds, by far, the most produced of her entire career. This works pretty well for Williams, but purists may feel that the sound is too clean for what makes Lucinda Williams great. When Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was finally released in June of 1998, it was hailed worldwide as nothing short of stunning, and it would go on to win Williams' first Grammy award.

As the name suggests, the music found on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is a perfect soundtrack for traveling, and the mood throughout the record as a constant feeling of "home." Musically, Lucinda Williams sticks close to her country-rock sound throughout nearly the entire record, giving the genre a bit of pop sensibility as well. Taking the classic sound of slide guitar, combined with bright acoustic guitar, and a healthy dose of organs, Williams invokes the spirit of the Allman Brothers as much as she channels Joan Baez and Patsy Cline. Mixing in multiple guitars, mandolin, harmonica, and even a pair of dorbos, the sound on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is beautifully full and rich. Even when the songs are more relaxed in nature, the addition of pianos and even accordions retain the "Southern charm" that permiates throughout the entire album.

The core of what makes Lucinda Williams the legend that she is, is her uncanny ability to craft and sing some of the most brilliant songs ever. The running theme throughout Car Wheels On A Gravel Road are the sounds and moods of late evening in the deep South. Truly, many of the songs give the ambiance of sitting on the back porch with Williams as the sun goes down. While this theme is often directly conveyed ("Lake Charles,") As with many of her songs, the lyrics on this record seem to revolve around love, and the relationship between people. The lyrics throughout Car Wheels On A Gravel Road are easily relatable, and Williams' voice is far more lively than on her previous recordings. This alteration in the sound of her vocals may also be due to the lengthy post-production on the album. Williams also has a talent for creating an atmosphere simply within the way she sings. Keeping close to the country style of singing, Lucinda Williams never gets too loud, and her voice captivates with the soul and honestly that she brings to each song.

The genre of country-rock is one of the most difficult musical styles to pull off successfully. Most artists who attempt it end up pushing too far to one side or the other. However, when a singer does, in fact, find the path to perfectly walk the "middle ground," the results are nearly always musically second to none. Bringing in country icons Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams unquestionably had the talent around her to make an amazing record. Taking nearly six years to finish, Williams put her own spin on the country-rock genre, and solidified her spot as an undeniable musical luminary in the process. Though she had been performing for over twenty years upon it's release, Lucinda Williams' fifth album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is her finest effort to date and an album that can (and should) be enjoyed by all music lovers.

Standout tracks: "Right In Time," "Can't Get Go," and "Greenville."

1 comment:

Daniel B said...

speaking of the great Steve Earle, how about a review of him?

I would think Transcendental Blues would be a good one to start with....