Monday, October 20, 2008

Music Review – Lucinda Williams – Little Honey

How do I put this? The latest release from Lucinda Williams, Little Honey, drips with enough romantic schmaltz to make Romeo seem like a lightweight and to keep Pepto Bismol in business well into the next millennium. It's the second consecutive underwhelming album from the normally reliable musician; her previous effort, West, was the first real dud of her career and one of the worst directionally-named albums this side of Elvis Costello's pseudo-jazz groaner North. Though Williams bristled in various interviews that fans and critics never really gave that album a fair chance, to these ravaged ears the criticism was mostly well-founded. West was simply a dull and listless album.

As Williams readily acknowledges, many of the songs on Little Honey are unabashedly borne out of recent positive events in her personal life: specifically, she's cuckoo for producer and fiancé Tom Overby. Which is wonderful news; as the old bluesman once sang, everybody needs somebody. But make for an outstanding album it does not.

Opening track "Real Love" kicks off this saccharine fest with rollicking guitars reminiscent of other songs from Williams' back catalog. Throughout the album, the band gives it their best shot (badass drummer Butch Norton in particular), but the song's maudlin sentiment kills any momentum the music attempts to establish. As if to make the song's message painfully clear (for those of you who weren't paying attention), Williams uses the big L word a whopping 28 times.

Other songs also reflect this theme but take a much more deliberate musical approach. "Tears of Joy," "The Knowing," and "Rarity" each plod along at an agonizingly slow pace, with no real payoff. In particular, "Rarity" seems much longer than its already hefty eight-minute running time and ensures that the album's overall pace remains sporadic and dodgy. The three songs also sound remarkably similar, with only the occasional instrumental flourish or background vocal (including some truly over-the-top ones on "Tears of Joy") to distinguish one from the other.

What also makes this album so frustrating is that there are some solid songs scattered amongst the detritus. "Honey Bee" is perhaps the most ballsy and aggressive song Williams has ever recorded. It's damn loud - drums and a whole mess of guitars flail away as the singer practically shouts some suggestive lyrics that would make puritans in the audience blush. "Jailhouse Tears" is a humorous and somewhat poignant story of a "three-time loser" and his long-suffering significant other. Sung as a duet with Costello and wearing its country music influences proudly, the singers each offer their side of the story; Costello's assertion of "Look at me/ I'm clean now" is wryly dismissed by Williams' unconvinced female character: "You're so full of shit."

Other songs such as"If Wishes Were Horses" and "Circles and X's" are supported by gorgeous melodies and deal in the usual topics of broken hearts and fractured relationships that Williams has mined on previous albums. "Circles and X's," written all the way back in 1985 is a moving snapshot of a relationship on the skids and is the album's standout track. "The vows have all been broken" the narrator laments as her man heads for the door, poetically noticing how "sunlight reflects off the silver" on the man's finger.

These moments are unfortunately rare on Little Honey; its meandering and lovey-dovey songs are always lurking around the corner like the crazy uncle you're trying to avoid at the family reunion. And like that crazy uncle, once you run into these songs it's a total buzzkill. This isn't to say that Williams should create Car Wheels On a Gravel Road II either, nor does it mean criticism of this release is nothing more than complaining by Gravel Roadites clamoring for such a sequel. Certainly it's always nice to see an artist with an established reputation and musical style attempt new things, both musically and thematically. But sometimes those attempts fall short of the mark and the results are underwhelming. Little Honey is such an album.


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