Little Honey: Powerful + Compelling
A false start kicks off Little Honey, Lucinda Williams' new album. They launch into "Real Love," then stop short, and we hear the song counted off again. It's a seemingly offhand moment, but it announces from the outset that you're listening to a real band playing in real time. And, among other things, Little Honey is Williams' love letter to her band, Buick 6, who is given their own "featuring" credit on the back cover.
They are quite a band. And their influence is felt as much emotionally as musically. For while Little Honey is filled with songs about settling down and squaring one's dreams to reality, it's also the friskiest album Williams has made in years.
It feels like a series of afterhours sessions where someone left the mic open, with Williams and the band just sitting in the studio, knocking the songs around. They're built around traditional blues, country or rock changes, but the songs don't sound retro. There's never the sense of looking back or imitation; what you hear is a group of musicians playing the music they love.
And Williams has given them a typically strong set of songs to play. "Real Love" charges though verses that declare love equally to a man and a guitar; the raucous, gleefully lusty "Honey Bee" verges on apian pornography, climaxing with the declaration of "now I have your honey/all over my tummy;" and in probably the most unexpected cover of the year (if not the decade), Williams and her band joyfully bash their way through AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top."
The upbeat songs are unfettered and electric and even the ballads sound looser and more spontaneous. On her two previous studio albums, World Without Tears and West, Williams adopted a stiff, stilted manner that was all gravity and seriousness but allowed little light or air into the mix. It made the songs sound more like musical souvenirs from a poetry reading than fully formed song compositions. With one exception, that's happily not the case here.
The lyrics are as finely wrought as ever. In "Circles and X's"--the kind of song Williams excels at, a fiercely observed tale of a late-night, regretful breakup--each detail is given a emotional charge: "You manage to crack a smile/the sky is big and open/you stay for just a little while/the vows have all been broken." As she does throughout the album, Williams sings it beautifully, with a slight crack at the back of her throat, but instead of the dry accompaniment that marked West or World, the song swings, thanks to Butch Norton's drumming and the lively guitar work of Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster. It's a resonant combination that's also heard in "Tears of Joy," a relaxed, bluesy confession/testimony to the power of love; "If Wishes Were Horses," which rides a beautiful, loping lament reminiscent of Neil Young circa After The Gold Rush. And "Little Rock Star" finds Williams in maternal mode, comforting and advising a self-destructive, if talented musician. It's the kind of song that in lesser hands could come off as maudlin, but Williams sings it with a weary tenderness. She empathizes ("You bend over backwards to make a statement... I can't say I blame you/for throwing the towel in") while gently reminding them of their talent ("Will you ever do the things you're afraid to do").
If much of Little Honey deals with the themes and styles that Williams has covered since her self-titled Rough Trade album in 1988, there's a confidence and swagger to the performances that hasn't been heard since the landmark Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Butch Norton and Chet Lyster (both refugees from the Eels) bring a flinty sense of swing and rhythm to the songs, while Lyster and Williams' longtime guitarist Doug Pettibone tangle impressively on songs such as the greasy sermonette of "Well Well Well" and down home "Heaven Blues." Their exuberant playing (along with Williams' and Elvis Costello's game vocals) makes it possible to ignore the white trash clichés of Williams duet with Elvis Costello on "Jailhouse Blues."
The songs are also enlivened by little details. The slightly psychedelic backing vocals (provided by guests Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs) on "Real Love;" the vibraphone that makes an appearance toward the end of "Tears of Joy;" the sighing horn section of "Knowing;" the various junkyard percussion that runs through "Heaven" keeps the basic sound from turning monotonous. The only song they can't save is "Rarity," a spare set of lyrics in the mode of Essence. They throw everything they've got at it-horns, keys, vibes, backing vocals, and Williams even adds a lovely crooned vocal-but it can't keep the song from sounding lumpy and lifeless.
At the other ends of the spectrum, Williams knocks the solo "Plans to Marry" out of the park. It comes closest to stating the album's theme: in a cold world without heroes or leaders, where "Violence is big business/and love is just a word," she asks "Why do we get married?" Her answer: "Love is our weapon/love is the lesson."
Someone once joked that Williams needed two heartbreaks to make a good record. With Little Honey she shows she is just as powerful and compelling in love.