Album Reviews

Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers)

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Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Doing away with the perfectionist label with which she was tagged in the ’90s, Lucinda Williams’ new double-disc set unfolds organically. Nonetheless, these are polished songs featuring a confident Williams singing better than ever while surrounded by immensely talented musicians.

Williams was apparently smitten with David Bianco’s North Hollywood studio, Dave’s Room, after first visiting it in 2012 to help record a benefit album for ailing Replacements’ guitarist Slim Dunlap. Williams and Bianco agreed that she’d return to the studio, and she did—in spades, armed with essentially three albums’ worth of demos, 20 of which appear on this album and 15 held for a future album. On this album, Williams leveraged the freedom of being on her own label to merge the best of what we loved about Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence and World Without Tears into one extended listen. The results range from very good to brilliant.

Although there are some pop touches, a couple of rockers and a country gem (“Old Heartache”) this is, at its core, a blues album. Williams seems best grounded in sultry, slow-burning, Essence-like tunes, including “Cold Day in Hell,” and “Big Mess.” Using that vibe as a foundation, she sprinkles in Tony Joe White’s unmistakable swamp riffing of Tony Joe White on “West Memphis” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Jakob Dylan joins in on “It’s Gonna Rain,” the only tune on this album that Williams had written several years ago. Background vocals on several tracks come from Gia Ciambotti, daughter of the late John Ciambotti, a former Williams bassist. Bill Frisell contributes on “It’s Gonna Rain” and the emotionally rich cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” Throughout, tremendous contributions come from multi-instrumentalist/co-producer Greg Leisz, keyboardist Ian McLagan and her backing band, Jackshit, featuring two former Elvis Costello sidemen: drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Danny Faragher.

After the acoustic opener, “Compassion”—based on Williams’ father’s poem of the same name—and the subsequent rockers, “Protection” and “Burning Bridges”—the likeliest to receive heavy airplay—there are many other treasures to explore, especially “East Side of Town” and “Temporary Nature (of Any Precious Thing).” This is such an expansive, compelling statement that it seems an embarrassment of riches that she’ll have another complete album ready next year.

– Jim Hynes

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