Raining on her parade

Review: Lucinda Williams makes a profession of seeming unschooled.

May 06, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

If you were to look up the term "critics' darling" in the dictionary, odds are you'd find a photo of Lucinda Williams.

A singer and songwriter whose specialty is literate, emotionally charged country rock, Williams (who performs at Shriver Hall Sunday) has been making records for just over two decades now. Not that the average pop fan would know; of the six albums she's recorded, only one -- last year's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" -- ever cracked the Billboard album chart.

In fact, the closest she ever came to making a dent in the mainstream was in 1993, when Mary Chapin Carpenter cut a version of her song "Passionate Kisses." Even then, the single was a bigger hit with country fans than with the pop audience, peaking at No. 57 on Billboard's Hot 100. (Patty Loveless also had a country hit with one of Williams' songs, "The Night's Too Long.")

Even so, the release of "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" was treated like a major event by much of the music press, earning Williams rave reviews and fawning features -- the sort of play usually reserved for best-selling superstars.

Naturally, when the Village Voice published its annual Critics' Poll results in February, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" was No. 1 with a bullet, finishing ahead of Grammy winner Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," Bob Dylan's legendary "Live 1966: The `Royal Albert Hall' Concert," and the Beastie Boys' chart-topping "Hello Nasty." Critical kudos don't come any higher than that.

But does she really deserve such praise?

No. If anything, the praise heaped upon "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" strikes me as emblematic of all that is wrong with rock criticism today.

"Car Wheels" isn't a bad album, nor is it a great one. But Williams desperately wants it to be great, and as such, loads it up with all sorts of signifiers -- aesthetic Post-It notes that say: "See? This is a big idea." "This is a genuine emotion." "This is a raw-and-rootsy moment." It's like a museum display that has been so carefully planned that even the dust comes off like a historical artifact.

While there is much to admire about the amount of craft and commitment Williams put into the album, the performances themselves leave me cold -- and that's the heart of my gripe. Other critics were so swept away by the significance and ambition of the album that they overlooked its musical flaws entirely.

It isn't just that Williams starts the album off-key and pretty much stays there till the bitter end. What really irks me was how willful it all seemed. It was as if Williams believed that a smooth, polished delivery was somehow less genuine than a flat, flawed performance.

Call me a stickler, but there's a reason "singer" comes first in the term "singer/songwriter."

There were other critics who refused to join the chorus praising Williams. Greil Marcus, author of "Mystery Train" and other well-regarded books of rock criticism, wrote of Williams' rise to the top of the Critics' List: "I don't think I've ever heard a more self-congratula- tory, smug, preaching-to-the-choir routine played out so effectively, at least in the press. Williams smothers her every note with affect, with shapeliness, with semaphored irony."

"Her singing can be incredibly emotive, but after 20 minutes, I'm thinking, `Enough, already,' " agrees Elysa Gardner, a music critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. "I mean, I'd find her grating to listen to for extended lengths."

Of course, one critic's poison is another critic's meat, and Williams' supporters tend to treasure her vocal mannerisms. Indeed, veteran rock critic Robert Christgau, a senior editor at the Village Voice, dismisses vocal technique as a consideration at all.

"I think the notion that hitting the notes and being smooth is the essence of singing is a patent absurdity," he says. "We've heard smoother versions of at least one Lucinda Williams song, done by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and it stinks. It's a travesty. What I said in my Rolling Stone review is that she bit the tongue out of the song, and I go with it."

In any case, the debate over Williams isn't entirely about music. As Gardner observes, "Critics are almost more attracted to the idea of somebody like Lucinda Williams than to the music itself. [They see her as] this gritty maverick who works outside the big, corporate, major-label system, taking her time, doing things her way, and that, I suspect, weighs into it heavily. Maybe too heavily."

Certainly much was made about the fact that Williams spent seven years recording the album, dismissing producers and rejecting numerous versions of the songs before settling on the ones included on the album.

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