Tuesday, January 1, 2008

No. 304: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Band: Lucinda Williams
Album: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It won about a thousand Grammies and it became the sound of alt country for a while. William's opus is the sound of Williams as a real songwriter while also showing her voice.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Twang and such don't float my boat. I do enjoy this album, though.
Best song: "Right in Time" and "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" are great.
Worst song: "Metal Firecracker" is not so great.
Is it awesome?: Sure...

I have to apologize, but I was in Chicago for the last five days and, like a moron, forgot to put this record on my iPod before I left. Therefore, I didn't get a great listen to the album. So, as I've done twice before, I have outsourced the writing of the review to a friend. This time, it's Motley Fool editor and Springsteen fan Ellen Bowman:

You don't need me to tell you that Lucinda Williams is a great songwriter, that her vocals are heartfelt and raw and beautiful, or that "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" is widely recognized as an amazing album. But what I will tell you is that I didn't know anything about Lucinda Williams when I got this record, not long after it came out in 1998; my mother and I were driving from Michigan, where my family lives, to Texas, where I went to college. The tape (yeah, it was that long ago) was prominently displayed at some gas station or other, and we took a chance on it.

On that trip, we stopped at Graceland; we went to Hope, Ark., to see Bill Clinton's birthplace (it was not very exciting). We dug for diamonds in a national park and had chicken-fried steak in Mississippi. My old Chevy didn't have air conditioning, so we did it all in the August heat of the South. And we didn't have a ton of mutually agreeable music with us (my mom having vetoed the Dead Kennedys immediately), so "Car Wheels" got a lot of play.

I fell in love with it. The melodies were sinuous and addictive and her voice was haunting and warm at once. The lyrics were often funny, often heartbreaking, and the South was alive everywhere in her writing. At the time, I was dating a guy from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the song "Lake Charles" was dead-on perfect: "We used to drive to Lafayette and Baton Rouge/in a yellow El Camino/ listenin' to Howlin' Wolf." You'd have to hear it to know why it encapsulated that place, sticky heat and pickup trucks and Dixie beer. But it did. It was perfect.

After three days, when we finally got to Texas, I asked my mom if she minded if I kept "Car Wheels." "Not at all," she said. "To be honest, I didn't really care for it that much."

I hadn't noticed. And in the end I think that's the real genius of this album: that listening to it, you can't conceive that anyone might hear less than the brilliance you're hearing.

I still don't know a ton about Lucinda, though of course I've found out more as the years went on. Turns out she's a high priestess of new country -- who knew? But the other albums of hers I've heard, while they're all good, just don't crystallize into perfect the way "Car Wheels" does. There's not a misstep on this album, as far as I'm concerned. And I can't imagine why you wouldn't agree.

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