3 1/2 STARS for Little Honey
Lucinda Williams spent nearly all of last year's "West" in a deeply blue mood, trying to reconcile the loss of her mother and the end of a relationship.
She sounded inconsolable, and the record's biggest flaw was how much it drained you to listen, dragging you through valleys with precious few peaks.
"Little Honey," which comes out Tuesday, is the sound of a rejuvenated, energized Williams. How energized? She closes the record with a creditable version of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top," and actually sounds as if she's having fun translating Bon Scott's unnatural howl into a Louisiana drawl.
Like Williams' best records, "Sweet Old World" and "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," "Little Honey" balances her undisputed gift for sad with moments of tranquillity, flashes of anger and a dry, winking wit.
The music is equally dynamic, moving from the subtle drama of the excellent "Little Rock Star" to the dirty rock 'n' roll of "Honey Bee" to a send-up of classic country duets, "Jailhouse Tears," on which she teams with Elvis Costello.
Williams still owns melancholy, however, although some of the most sadly beautiful songs here are actually love letters to her fiancé, manager and producer, Tom Overby. "The Knowing" is the finest example, with a devastatingly intimate vocal and Southern soul vibe straight from 1966. Close behind is "Plan to Marry," a solo acoustic song in which she comes to terms with three decades of bad decisions, bad boys and bad relationships.
At her best, Williams inhabits a place in popular music where few others hang out. The rawness of her emotions combined with the nuances in her writing can be compelling when she's focused, and "Little Honey" is a passionate, clear-eyed statement.