One can only spend so many minutes kneeling on the floor, slipping CDs in and out of the player, before the subtle nuances fade into irrelevance. Lucinda Williams’ third album has been remastered for reintroduction into the digital world, and is doubtless the better for that attention; certainly the packaging has been improved. But it’s her songs that resonate over the years — durable, despite their seeming fragility — not the minute adjustments of careful engineers. (Much like refereeing, one only notices mixes and mastering when they’re botched.)
After two much earlier Folkways discs, Williams’ Rough Trade debut in 1988 announced the arrival of a major songwriting talent, and the cadence of a distinct vocal stylist. Songs such as “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad”, “Big Red Sun Blues”, “Changed The Locks”, “Passionate Kisses” and “Side Of The Road” have covered by artists as well-known as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tom Petty, and as lesser-known as the Schramms and Mollie O’Brien. Now on its third label — it was briefly reissued in 1992 before Chameleon collapsed — this new version includes six additional tracks (mostly live) from two promotional EPs which appeared, respectively, in the U.S. and the U.K. The CD booklet includes brief notes from Williams about each song, plus a few kind words from her poet father.
The additional tracks are more than a pleasant afterthought. Drawn largely from the blues tradition of her first two albums (“Nothing In Rambling”, “Disgusted”, “Goin’ Back Home”), there’s also a beautiful acoustic version of “Side Of The Road” and an early, tender duet of “Something About What Happens When We Talk”. Ah, yes — and the one unfinished track she’s let out in all these years, “Sundays”.
A decade ago, Williams was the odd woman out on Rough Trade, whose roster included Camper Van Beethoven and the Butthole Surfers and whose passing (they were also a major distributor in the U.S.) a few years later all but destroyed the indie rock economy. A decade ago, and her voice seemed lighter then, the sadness of her songs was tempered by the hope implicit in her lively vocals. Between this album, 1992’s Sweet Old World and the new Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, she’s issued 37 finished tracks (including a cover on each disc) in these last 10 years. Maybe less hope and more steel by the end of that gravel road, but still a rare and rewarding trip.