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Friday, October 31, 2008

Little Honey Goes A Long Way For Lucinda Williams

Even when she writes a happy song, Lucinda Williams can’t help but sing it as if she’s lived too long in the throes of sadness. It’s a signet of her sound, intuitively ingrained and imparted in her voice’s weathered drawl.

So when she declares, “I’ve found the love I’ve been looking for/ It’s a real love,” in the rambunctious opening track of Little Honey, Williams almost seems more relieved than elated. And while love does inspire most of its songs, the predominant theme of the album is, in a word, endurance.

Whether she’s pining with heartbreak or struggling to cope through other trying circumstances, Williams renders a poignant, unvarnished portrait of someone just trying to emotionally survive in this world. She chastises herself for letting her sweetheart go in the mournful sway of “If Wishes Were Horses” as she achingly pleads for him to come back. Accentuated by country and gospel subtleties, “Circles and X’s” finds Williams lamenting in the bittersweet role of the other woman while “Knowing” sees her recognizing a good thing after missing out for too long.

Though she admittedly harbors weaknesses and suffers fools at times, Williams gets wise in “Jailhouse Tears,” taking Elvis Costello to task for not only getting thrown in the slammer, but also for stealing her truck and, incidentally, her heart. Doing his part to save face (and make bail), Costello insists, “I just went to the corner/ To get a cold six-pack,” to which Williams indignantly counters, “You’re a drunk, you’re a stoner/ You never came back.”

With more rewarding prospects in mind, Williams lays claim to her convictions, reconciling her faith in “Heaven Blues” as well as her fidelity in “Plan To Marry,” the latter yielding an epiphany of sorts. After pondering matrimony’s saving grace with disillusionment and suffering all around, she contentedly resolves, “Love is our weapon/ Love is the lesson.” For Williams, such is what makes commitment ultimately worthwhile.

And so it’s with an irascibly defiant cover of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)” that Lucinda Williams makes her final stand. When she sings, “I tell you, folks/ It’s harder than it looks,” she’s not just spouting off about the toil and pitfalls of a rock and roll life. She’s underscoring the effort of life itself, which is what she achieves throughout Little Honey with insight and authenticity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rundgren Rocks Out on Arena

Todd Rundgren is kind of like a Mensa member who gets inadvertently enrolled in remedial math. His expertise in the studio is so copious and his musical styles so varied that creating a pop or rock record has sometimes made him sound artistically stifled, sporadic, or flat-out bored. While he’s demonstrated time and again that he can dabble in various genres (and often on the same album), his more resonant work has resulted from a cohesive and concentrated approach.

Rundgren does just that on his latest effort, Arena, on which he delivers the kind of streamlined progressive rock suggested by its title. Brazen, swift blasts of electric guitars are ubiquitous, punctuated by meaty riffs and fist-pumping choruses. There’s also a palpable element of cheek at play here—if not downright cockiness—but Rundgren (ever the showman) pulls it off.

As he has wont to do in the past, Rundgren assumes the role of a one-man band, playing every instrument and programming all computerized simulations. To his credit and to the album’s overall advantage, the synthesized aspects don’t overtake or impede the robust velocity of the music. Certainly, on vitriolic tracks like “Mountaintop” and “Strike,” Rundgren wields more power chords than Pro Tools.

He informs much of these songs with pointed lyrics decrying—or at least contemplating—false hope (“Bardo”), resentment (“Mercenary”), and myriad forms of deception. “There’s another crack in the facade,” he sings in “Afraid” while on “Weakness,” he asserts, “I’d be no good to no one/If they knew the truth.” On arguably the album’s most provocative track, “Gun,” Rundgren rails against a deceptive sense of security, savagely lampooning a glorified American gun culture: “The Constitution says that I’m so blessed/That I can clean my piece on the Supreme Court steps…There’s many like it, but this one’s mine/A good replacement for a lack of spine.” He levels his most scathing caricature in the refrain, “You better run/’Cause I’m young, dumb, and I’ve got a gun.”

Even if Arena is but one of Rundgren’s arbitrary sonic experiments, he at least follows it through with focus, consistency, and no shortage of testosterone. In a nutshell, he’s succeeded here with something, which sure beats getting by with anything.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Newly Released Otis Redding Live Album Recalls Timeless Soul

Less than three months before his exultant appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and just nine months prior to his tragic death Otis Redding toured Europe in the spring of 1967 as part of the Stax/Volt Revue, treating rapt audiences to his firebrand expressions of soul.

Headlining a roster that included Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, and Eddie Floyd, Redding capped off each show with a select mix of originals and covers, summoning the grit and visceral grind of his Georgia roots. Two such performances, originally recorded and mixed by legendary engineer Tom Dowd, have been preserved in their entirety and released this month as Live in London and Paris.

With the Stax house band of Booker T. & The MGs and The Mar Keys bringing its service to the concert stage, the songs assume much of the muscle and thrust of their original studio versions. Redding then revs them up a notch or ten, barnstorming through cuts like “Respect” and “Shake!” with bravado to spare.

His unvarnished, when-the-spirit-moves-him enthusiasm is ever-present, whether he’s plowing through urgent renditions of “Day Tripper” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or pouring out his last ounces of pain in “Try A Little Tenderness,” which mightily concludes both sets.

While a curfew at London’s Finsbury Park Astoria accounts for a somewhat condensed setlist, the Paris date at the Olympia Theatre afforded three additional songs “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and “These Arms of Mine” which, besides being among the finest works Redding ever wrote, also make for some of the best moments on this collection.

Both sets are otherwise comparable, but Otis Redding invests so much vitality into each performance that they come off as individually inspired. And, as Live in London and Paris illustrates, you simply can’t have too much of a good thing.

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