THROUGH THE LENS: Five Strong Roots Albums By Five Strong Women
Lucinda Williams - Photo by Larry John Fowler
The great thing about recorded music, especially in these self-isolating, stay-at-home, quarantined days and nights, is that you can listen to it whenever and however you want. Whether it be while fixing dinner, doing the laundry, or lounging around in your jammies you can be transported to a wide variety of alternate realities. Like watching a movie in your head, all in the comfort and safety of your home. This week I offer up my own personal CBGB of new and upcoming releases. There are three varieties of country by Lucinda Williams, Whitney Rose, and Pam Tillis; bluegrass by the pioneering Laurie Lewis; and the blues by the extraordinary Rory Block.
Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels (April 24)
Williams has a pronounced throaty ache in her voice that has given me the shivers like no other ever since I first saw her in 1986. Whether it’s Sylvia’s loneliness as a waitress in Beaumont or the metaphysical vulnerability of waiting on someone’s back steps, the emotional devastation those characters inhabit serve as daggers twisting in your heart. While her songs have never shied away from society’s ills, her most recent albums focused more on personal journeys as she experimented with form and structure. Not so this time, as she more directly addresses the external forces that wreak havoc upon us.
As so much has changed since her last album of original material in 2016, Williams is no mood to accept things as they have become. Here, she’s full of defiance, singing the hard rock blues, such as “You Can’t Rule Me” and “Man Without a Soul” that open the album, with an aim as true as it is unmistakeable. Williams turns mournful when she laments, “These are the dark blue days / That much is true / There are so many ways to crush you.” It’s as though she’s just turned off the most recent presidential press conference. But we are not left in the lurch; Williams closes the album with its title track and masterpiece, “Good Souls Better Angels.” Whether it’s prayer or a meditation on self-reliance, we have to rely on the better angels of our nature to get through this.
Whitney Rose – We Still Go to Rodeos (April 24)
I’ll say this up front: Rose has not gotten the due she so richly deserves. Her last album, 2017’s Rule 62, was substantially more rewarding than all but a few records that year, but was by and was largely ignored when awards were handed out, and simply was not on as many year-end lists as warranted. Here, Rose loosens the reins of her earlier work, ramps it up, and pushes the boundaries of the countrypolitan sound she’s so adroitly flirted with, albeit with a harder-edged lead guitar, sometimes with a wah-wah pedal. Perhaps that’s why she chose Paul Kolderie (Radiohead and Morphine) to produce the record.
However, Rose retains the vocalization style of the queens of country music that’s the heart and soul of her music. The result is an invigorating mixture that is disquieting one moment, consoling another. As odd as it may sound, I think the origin of the album is derived from a Lesley Gore song she often does in her live shows, “You Don’t Own Me.” Not literally, but rather metaphorically. Rolling Stone previewed one of the album’s many outstanding tracks, “Believe Me, Angela,” here. If you are taken with it, you’ll like the entire album.
Laurie Lewis – and Laurie Lewis (out now)
While Lewis did not record an album till 1983, our paths crossed somewhere along the bluegrass line nearly a decade before. She first stood out as women were then rare in bluegrass (except for on the progressive West Coast), then as an outstanding guitarist, and rarer still, band leader. In the intervening years she became a staple on the circuit, and now a icon, an influence and inspiration to many younger women who have taken up the mantle. This not to say that Lewis has given up the ghost, not by a long shot. Billed as an album of duets (with Molly Tuttle, Mike Marshall, Tatiana Hargreaves, Barbara Higbie, and more), and Laurie Lewis is pure Lewis while also permitting friends to pay tribute to her.
Mixing originals with covers (all but one are by women), Lewis’ brilliance shines in her reverence and quiet understatement. Of particular interest is Rosalie Sorrels’ “My Last Go-Round,” a beautiful lullaby that pretty well encapsulates Sorrels’ troubadour life. Lewis continues that theme with the original “This Is Our Home” that closes the album, an introspective piece that’s as post-modern as any younger artist could muster. As the traditional “You Are My Flower” opens the album, these 13 duets constitute a retrospective song cycle of a different sort, one that traverses where she’s been and where’s she headed.
Rory Block – Prove It On Me (out now)
Fifty-five years ago Block’s life changed when her buddy Stefan Grossman introduced her to the Delta blues. Dropping the classical guitar and learning from the legends still alive at the time, she began her own life in the blues. The newest album is her 35th, the second in her Power Women of the Blues series, and the first in 14 years that does not focus on a specific artist. With a couple of exceptions, it’s enabled Block to expose great tunes by obscure blues artists to a wider audience. It also serves to show not just how deep the blues genre is but the significant role women have played as well.
Notable examples on the album are tunes that only women could have written, ones by Madlyn Davis and Merline Johnson that underscore how much of the blues has been about sexual desire, albeit it in a playful way full of double entendres. But it’s not all peaches and cream. The standout may well be a Block original, “Eagles,” that was inspired by a friend who was beaten so badly that she lost an eye and was “left for dead.” The song takes that metaphor and weaves a tale of a modern woman’s life in the blues. If you are unfamiliar with this six-time Blues Music Awards winner, this is an excellent place to begin.
Pam Tillis – Looking for a Feeling (April 24)
As with Mandy Barnett and Lee Ann Womack, Tillis no longer fits the mold that “modern” country music wants to sell. Yet she has prospered during the past decade by recording several endearing albums that rely on her strengths, stuff that country radio will not play. The new album takes it a step further as Tillis delves into a country soul sound that, while recorded in Nashville, has a definite Memphis feel to it. But it goes beyond that, as it’s obvious that she draws on the lessons learned and the many influences around her. While it comes as no surprise that there’s a Matraca Berg tune (“Demolition Angel”), the delightful surprise is the pedal steel and fiddle-driven “Dark Turn of Mind” (Welch & Rawlings) done as a waltz on a barroom floor.
But most of the songs are originals. Most notably “Lady Music,” which sounds like it was lifted from Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, replete with Jaco Pastorius’ bass lines, and lyrics: “She’s a jealous mistress / You don’t choose her, she chooses you.” With “Last Summer’s Wine” Tillis may evoke the well-known “Strawberry Wine,” but it takes you on a different journey, mining one’s past in a song that could well serve as an anthem for love in the time of coronavirus. Tillis has not stood still; neither should we.