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Down To the Essence

Lucinda Williams keeps it simple on her latest album.

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Released earlier in the year, Lucinda Williams' Essence had a lot of expectation to live up to, coming as it did on the heels of her 1998 breakthrough Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, a record that went gold, was the consensus album of the year, and was plainly great. It took half as long for Williams, a notoriously deliberate perfectionist, to craft Essence as it did to craft Car Wheels On a Gravel Road and, frankly, the new album is about half as good. But half of a masterpiece is still well worth anyone's time. Maybe that's the algebra of Lucinda Williams: six years for greatness, three for a merely good record.

The new album is well -- and purposefully -- named. Where many of the best songs on Williams' three previous albums -- Car Wheels, 1992's Sweet Old Word, and 1988's Lucinda Williams -- were compassionate portraits of other people or emotionally gritty road songs, the bulk of the songs on Essence seem stuck in time and space, honing in on the abstract marrow of longing and alienation that feeds classic Williams songs such as "Side of the Road," "I Lost It," and "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad."

The album's tempo is slower -- much slower -- than her previous work, and the lyrics are much more spare. Essence was recorded with Bob Dylan bandmates bassist Tony Garnier and guitarist Charlie Sexton (Sexton also produced), but the end result is more Time Out of Mind than "Love and Theft," more mood music than song music. It's a comparison that Williams made herself in an interview with Newsweek earlier this year: "To me, it's sorta like the transition Bob Dylan made from his early, really heavy narrative stuff to what he did on Time Out of Mind. The Nashville paper said, 'What's this? He's not saying anything.' But I think it's a beautiful album in its simplicity."

Essence's lyrical simplicity and emotional self-examination are signaled by the opening cut, "Lonely Girls." Lucinda Williams' opener, "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad," swept by in just 21 lines, nine of those the title refrain. But "Lonely Girls" makes due with just 21 words, with Williams meditating -- in her breathy, marble-mouthed, and wondrous vocals -- on the concrete images that she's so known for and that are otherwise missing from the album. Williams cites "heavy blankets," "pretty hairdos," and "sparkly rhinestones" as the accoutrements of lonely girls before concluding with the song's inevitable punchline, "I oughta know about lonely girls."

Some of the new songs -- especially "Steal Your Love" and "I Envy the Wind" -- embrace the Creative Writing 101 metaphors that this celebrated poet's daughter occasionally flirts with. But the palpable yearning in Williams' voice and the aptness of the music redeem the lyrical constructs, confirming the notion that Williams can make music out of clichÇ like nobody since Bruce Springsteen. But sometimes the music isn't so apt: Williams' former guitarist, the gritty Guf Morlix, is missed especially on "Are You Down," which new guy Bo Ramsey frames with slick licks far too tasteful for Williams' unkempt art.

There are some songs here -- the literal memory song "Bus to Baton Rouge," the backwoodsy "Get Right With God," and, most of all, the anthemic hymn to connection "Out of Touch" -- that exhibit the lyrical fullness and wider worldview of Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. But mostly, this album is summed up by its title track, a lonely, lusty howl that makes pop's frequent "love is a drug" metaphor seem more real than even Bryan Ferry could have imagined. Williams' music has always been emotionally extreme, skating on an edge that lesser artists usually fall right over. "Baby, sweet baby, can't get enough/Please come find me and help me get fucked up," she sings with an almost unbearable intimacy.

Essence may have lost Williams some of the new fans she gained with Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, but while it certainly isn't as good, it does nothing to diminish Williams' status as a truly major artist. n

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

Lucinda Williams

with Ron Sexsmith

The New Daisy Theatre

Saturday, September 29th

local beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

Pezz -- now more than ever. Given the present turmoil, it's comforting to see the city's most politically active band back in business. Stalwarts of the city's punk scene for more than a decade now, the activist Pezz has a new record out, With Everything We've Got. The band started a two-week tour through the Midwest and Northeast last week which will wind up in early October. Then it's off to Europe for a five-week, 11-country leg. The band will return to Memphis for a local show in late November before going on indefinite hiatus. The current tour is part of a Voices for Peace campaign, and the band characterizes the tour as being: "In solidarity with all those working for the type of justice in the world that springs from love and not revenge, and with those striving for a lasting and equitable peace, our shows will be a meeting spot for those who want to halt our nation's reckless 'crusade' towards war. This tour is dedicated to those who lost their lives in NYC, DC, and Pennsylvania in the despicable acts of violence of September 11th, and to their families and friends suffering their loss. Further still, it is dedicated to all those who suffer because of violence in all its forms." Look for more on Pezz's new record in these pages next week.

The Taste of Midtown festival returns this Saturday, September 29th, for its second year. The free event runs from noon to 9 p.m. in Overton Square and, in addition to the food vendors, the festival has a nice lineup of local music scheduled on two stages. The lineup for the main stage: The Charlie Wood Trio, 1:30 p.m.; The Carol Plunk Band, 2:30; The Nancy Apple Band, 3:30; Caliente, 4:30; Robert Johnson, 5:30; Joyce Cobb, 6:30; and Keith Sykes and the Revolving Band, 8. The lineup on the Gibson Guitar Stage: Sid Selvidge, noon; Ross Rice and Friends, 1 p.m.; The Gabe and Amy Show, 2; FreeWorld, 3; X Radio, 4; Papa Top's West Coast Turnaround, 5; Zach Myers Band, 6; and Crash Into June, 7.

Calvary Episcopal Church has announced the musical lineup for its Calvary and the Arts series. The program will feature free 30-minute concerts on Wednesdays this fall. Concerts are at noon and will be followed by lunch, which costs $5 per person. Among the highlights are O'Landa Draper's Associates on October 17th, Memphis-bred jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum on October 24th, internationally celebrated soprano Kallen Esperian on November 14th, and The Memphis Boychoir and Chamber Choir on December 5th. For more information, call 525-6602.

For local musicians who want to play Austin's prestigious South By Southwest Music Festival next year, now is the time to get started. The festival isn't until next March, but the early-application deadline is October 7th (fee: $10). The late-application deadline is November 9th (fee: $20). Applications must include a CD or cassette of original material (at least three songs), a photo, a biography, a press kit, and the processing fee. Applications can be acquired via the Internet at www.sxsw.com, by e-mail at sxsw@sxsw.com, or by calling (512) 467-7979. Applications should be mailed to SXSW Music Festival, P.O. Box 4999, Austin, TX 78765.

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