30 May 2007

Back to "West"

"Mailboxes" © Margaret Malandruccolo

Here are my thoughts on the (now not so) new Lucinda Williams CD West. First, the pictures. The cover portrait lifted in my previous post is by Annie Leibovitz, most of the rest of the cover photos (a half dozen, including the mailboxes) are by Margaret Malandruccolo with the exception of one shot of a retiring Lucinda by Alan Messer. Malandriccolo is an accomplished photographer of musicians of various sorts but, interestingly, her images here are landscapes.

Second, the music. I was not much taken by this disc when I first listened to it. Subsequent events have made me appreciate it a lot more. Williams penned many of the tunes following her mother's death. In that sense, they depart from the more familiar numbers we might expect from her; you know, the ones that disclose love and happiness, broken hearts and squandered affection, and so forth. The reviewers seem not to get this and wish that Lucinda simply stick with her 'normal' themes. They seem to be saying "Come on! Why dwell on loss?" The problem here, though, is not with the cd but with reviewers who are emotionally tone deaf. Normal stuff fades quickly in the face of death. As Williams writes and sings on one tune:

"Faces look familiar,
But they don't have names
Towns I used to live in
Have been rearranged
Highways I once traveled down
Don't look the same
Everything has changed."

And she is means it. Quite literally, I suspect. Tone deafness is uncharitable; it prevents the critics from giving Williams the chance to try to figure out how to navigate this foreign world.

That said, I think the reviewers are right to criticize the production. Some of the musicians on the record are truly terrific (e.g., Bill Frissell, Jenny Scheinman, etc. ...) and I love Williams' vocals nearly all the time, but the production is overly sanitized. In the liner notes producer Hal Willner thanks the musicians "for the thousands of goosebumps." And he continues "These musicians should be running the world." O.K, - suppose we agree with the latter sentiment; why on earth didn't Willner turn them loose a bit more in the studio? If you are going to stick your neck out and move away from a predictable alt-country line-up (and I do like the regulars too!), at least make the risk pay off. Otherwise you might discourage others from exploring musical boundaries and interstices too. The point here is not that the cd needs more "rockers," but that it could include considerably more by way of dangling or off-kilter or challenging solos and arrangements; and all of that could well be understated, of course.

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