Listening Booth: Lucinda Williams, “Little Honey”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Like many other people, I welcomed Lucinda Williams into my life with the release of the Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, in 1998. Over the course of the last 10 years, I’ve been a fascinated observer of her career, both on record, and on the road. I’ve had the opportunity to see her perform live on numerous occasions, and although her backing band tended to change with every new tour, she has always had a knack for employing some of the finest musicians available. This is particularly true of her guitar players, a group that has included such greats as Gurf Morlix, J.J. Jackson, Kenny Vaughan, Bo Ramsey, and her current sidekick, the redoubtable Doug Pettibone, who shines brightly on this album.

To follow Williams’ career is to listen as she bares her broken heart time and again in her songs. But there’s good news this time out: “I’m stepping out and writing about things other than unrequited love. But because that’s not part of my experience anymore doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being a songwriter,” she explains. “There are plenty of other important things to write about — the state of the world for one thing — I don’t buy into the myth that because you get to a certain level of contentment, you have to throw in the towel.” Hopefully some of her more satisfied contemporaries are listening.

Sure enough, Little Honey (Lost Highway) opens (after a false start, which is a bit of a inside joke, considering that Williams has always been well known as a perfectionist when it comes to her recordings) with the snarling rock n’ roll of “Real Love.” About her new lover, who she found “standing up behind an electric guitar,” she observes:

“The thing about you so far, you squeeze my peaches
Then you send me postcards of girls on beaches
You’re drinking in a bar in Amsterdam
I’m thinking baby, far out, be my man”

As promised, Williams does not restrict herself to love songs. In the stunning “Little Rock Star,” she uses her status as somewhat of an elder stateswoman among musicians to advise a younger generation of musicians who seem bent on self-destruction, telling them “to toss it away like that would be a shame.”

Williams hasn’t forgotten how to write about heartbreak, though. The beautiful “If Wishes Were Horses” is the proof. Featuring beautiful, Floyd-Cramer informed piano playing by road band member Rob Burger, and a sympathetic harmony vocal from Pettibone, the song finds Williams pleading with a rejected lover to try one more time.

“If wishes were horses
I’d have a ranch
Come on and give me another chance”

Sorrow is tempered by the laughter evoked by the next track, a duet with Elvis Costello. On “Jailhouse Tears,” the two old friends have fun with the traditional honky tonk ballad form, trading charges and counter-charges.

Costello: “They locked me up and you locked me out”
Williams: “You tried to steal my truck, but that’s not what this is about”
Costello: “I went to the corner to get a cold six-pack”
Williams: “You’re a drunk, you’re a stoner, you never came back”

The languid “Rarity” is about a talented, uncompromising songwriter whose words “speak volumes … like Leonard Cohen’s,” who has “no hits on the radio,” and who “is never gonna be a big star.” The song could be directed to a specific artist, much like the tribute to the late, unheralded Texas songwriter Blaze Foley (“Drunken Angel”) that she included on Car Wheels. It could also be more general, encouraging struggling songwriters to stay strong. Or maybe it’s about the artist that Williams sometimes wishes she could still be.

If I ever have a wedding, I hope that “Plan to Marry” can be our song. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, Williams recounts some of the ills of the world today, and then suggests that we marry because “love is our weapon,” which we use to combat all of these problems.

If all of this isn’t enough, there’s a kick-ass cover of the AC DC classic “Long Way to the Top” to close the album.

It took Lucinda about six years to follow her 1992 album, Sweet Old World, with Car Wheels. It only took her about 18 months to follow last year’s brilliant West with this new album. Apparently, happiness is making her more prolific. She can still do the dark, moody, introspective thing with the best of them, but she has expanded her palette here and made the most eclectic album of her career.