Lucinda Williams Little Honey

[Lost Highway; 2008]

Styles: country, Americana, singer/songwriter, mama
Others: Gillian Welch, Eilen Jewell, Kasey Chambers, Blue Mountain

Little Honey, the fourth in a series of Lost Highway-issued Williams studio albums released this decade, is yet another steady piece of competent Americana from one of this era's most celebrated songwriters. Each album in the series is nearly as noteworthy as her 1998 classic Car Wheel On a Gravel Road, though none hit the long-labored perfection for which that album is celebrated. Little more need be said if you already count yourself a fan of these recent albums. There are no reinventions on Honey, just a few subtle shifts and scoots to offer the album an identity of its own, and really, sometimes that's all we need from a longstanding singer/songwriter of Williams' stature.

The production sound on Honey is a pinch slicker than everything since her flagship record; Elvis Costello sings a verse or two for no good reason; a few tunes turn up the heat more than usual; a bewildering cover tune selection closes out the record in a clumsy fashion. Them's the differences; otherwise, this is really just another sturdy Lucinda Williams record. All the hallmarks of her sound -- lazy heartache, drunk-as-hell vocals, hooks galore, middle-class observations -- are still everywhere, hitting like a shabby guitar cranking blues-infused country riffs. Same as it ever was. Lucinda Williams still turns 'em out in a classic manner, with the star of the show -- as always -- being her vocal howl, which will be remembered far beyond those of her contemporaries.

Looking closer at the details, however, will raise a few flags. For starters, a new band -- called Buick 6 and featuring her longtime lead guitarist Doug Pettibone -- is shit-sharp and often more bluesy than twangy. Sounds tolerable, but the subtle under-produced looseness, almost live-in-studio sound of many of Williams' previous records worked much better with her pre-hangover vocal style. While much of Pettibone's playing is remarkable and will make fans of modern post-authentic blues shiver, the sound, combined with the upgraded production of Eric Liljestrand and Tom Overby, sounds a smidge too contemporary for Williams' comfort zone. Also, Williams and her Buick boys decide to close out the album with a cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way To the Top." It's not bad, but the record would be better had it closed with the stunning "Plan to Marry."

The vocal/writing focus seems to have shifted a bit, too. Where Williams was once known for her lean, memorable writing, she now seems to be penning simpler-than-ever lyrics that cater more to the listener's ears than mind. The result makes for both the best batch of Williams vocals to date and some of the most uninspiring lyrics. The aforementioned "Plan to Marry" and "If Wishes Were Horses" sound and read just as classic-like as any of her previous work, while "Real Love" and "Honey Bee" leave nothing to the imagination. Most of the tunes, again, work their hardest at trying to simply sound approachable and memorable, full of one-liners and universally applicable subject matter. "Jailhouse Tears," "Knowing," and "Circles and Xs," to name just three, round out a batch of diverse, very accessible songs that thrive on Williams' straightforward, user-friendly writing and arrangements. It's not pop music we're dealing with, but compared to, say, her 2001 album, Essence, the lyrics are clearly left mostly on the sideline in favor of instant gratification.

It's been said that the greatest lyricists tend to work fast, finding the pulse of their art in the very need to document, describe, and grow -- finding a roll to ride until they burn out or fade away. Williams' Lost Highway albums debunk this theory. Once an over-thinking perfectionist who made simple music, Williams is now a borderline prolific writer who makes, you guessed it, still simple music. To some, the 52 full-blown studio songs she's already released this decade will be favored, even if a third of them are near-snoozers. To most, the near-perfect 25 tunes she released in the ’90s are much preferred to this very busy decade she's having. Either way, with Little Honey Williams has once again assured her fanbase that she is incapable of releasing an album that is anything less than collection-worthy and wholly listenable. Fans will buy it and love it. Ears fixed on The Rolling Stones, The Band, Bonnie Raitt and even buzz bands like The Moondoggies will enjoy the record too, and they would do just fine working their way backwards, straight on through to Williams' 1979 stellar debut, Ramblin'.

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