Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Vagrant)

 I may be reviewing PJ Harvey's excellent new record Let England Shake, but here's a little warm up for you from 1994 - Harvey's duet with Bjork on the Stones' "Satisfaction." Each woman kicking the other into the next gear and a new level of energy. This is fierce.

Okay. That was great, huh? Now to the business at hand.

Sometimes I take a gander at what other reviewers have to say about a record when I’ve determined to review it. I suppose, mostly for general perspective, occasionally to give myself something to bounce off or argue against. But meta-criticism has its limits, and mostly I stick to the music and to my response to it. And that’s how it’s going to be with the new PJ Harvey album Let England Shake. Just PJ and me.

Think about the last twenty years in rock music. Okay. Now, name an artist who has done better and more varied work over that time than PJ. And if you’re going to say Radiohead, uh – sorry, fail. Otherwise, maybe you have some ideas, but right now I can't think of one.

From the punk charged, visceral 1992 debut Dry through the art-blues (think Beefheart w/a touch of Zep) of To Give You My Love to the sublime urban romantic near-pop of Stories of the City, Stories of the Sea (not one of the artist’s favorites, but a rare commercial breakthrough that was not in the least compromised artistically) and Harvey’s work has been at once tremendously varied and unified aesthetically. The focus of her art is always on the songs and the emotional pull of her powerful performances. Harvey isn’t married to a given idiom, or even instrumental vehicle – for her most recent record White Chalk she composed all of the songs on piano rather than guitar (her standard).

The performances on Let England Shake borrow from everything from blues to punk, but the soul of the album is in its embrace of folk idioms, both British and American. Some of the brass arrangements recall the early 20th century sounds that Richard and Linda Thompson plumbed on records like I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, especially on tracks like “The Last Living Rose,” “In the Dark Places,” and “All and Everyone;” the latter combines Morris dancing meets Zappa sounds with an autoharp-centered melody, hinting at the hard scrabble, Appalachian balladry of performers like Sarah Ogan Gunning. 

Harvey’s long time accompanists Mick Harvey (no relation/Bad Seed) and John Parrish are ever sensitive to PJ’s vision. Parrish’s dry, punk-spiky guitar on “Bitter Branches” reminds of the Adverts. The song’s sad-sweet harmonies and lyric (“their arms are bitter branches, spreading into the world”) suggest the deep roots of imperial violence. In the idyll of her native Dorset, Harvey was moved by reading the literature of empire, in particular Maurice Shadbolt’s “Voices of Gallipoli,” and author L.A. Carylon’s writings on the horrifying specter of Gallipoli (the British-French offensive from 1916 during the First World War that resulted in nearly 400,000 casualties). Harvey also absorbed Roberta Reeder’s work “Russian Folk Lyrics,” similarly obsessed with the brutalities of war and power.. Indeed the basic theme of Let England Shake is that empire has a price, a deforming price that has touched everything in English life. Not really your standard pop inspirations, but Harvey has never been one for pop fodder.

The title track chugs along like Dylan’s “Masters of War” after Philip Glass (complete with a loopy, but effective vibraphone part from They Might Be Giants’ “Constantinople”) - Harvey proclaims, “England’s Dancing Days are done” like some harridan Robert Plant. “The Last Living Rose” refers to “the grey, damp filthiness of ages” – the legacy of horror that underpins England’s imperial glories. “The Glorious Land” paints a clear, didactic picture (“What is the glorious fruit of our land; It’s fruit is orphaned children”) to a sing-song rhythm, replete with girl group call and response and pretty Johnny Marr (ish) guitar framing.

Perhaps the albums centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder” draws together all of the record’s arrangement strands (Harvey’s authoharp, rock guitar, horns) with an almost Motown bounce that winds down into a bizarre, but effecting quote from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” The sound of Harvey repeating “What If I Take My Problem to the United Nations” is goofy, ahistorical and risky, but as the chant builds in intensity no one’s laughing.

Harvey’s intimacy with blues language gives a directness to songs like “Written on the Forehead” with its sampled (from reggae torch bearer Winston “Niney the Observer” Holmes) refrain of “let it burn, let it burn, let it burn.” “Forehead” is about the cost war visits upon civilian life - for both conqueror and conquered. The following, concluding song, “The Colour of the Earth,” is sung from a comrade in arm’s perspective, Let England Sleep winding down with a reflective and elegiac mood. 

Harvey’s art is nonpareil. Sometimes it might prompt comparison to Patti Smith, given their shared authority and fearlessness. Smith has addressed the ravages of war, too – in Gung Ho’s title track and in songs like “Up There Down There” from Dream of Life. Both artists have a profound sense of war’s tragedy and waste. But Smith’s poetic risks are combined with musical settings that rarely stray from her stated premises of "three chord rock and the power of the word". Not a thing wrong with that, but by comparison Harvey and her compatriots are musical adventurers.

PJ Harvey has a remarkable way of investing herself in her subject matter. She shifts from first to second person, from confidential modes to omniscient narration with assurance. As a singer she glides effortlessly between the alto and soprano parts of her range, always with tremendous diction, conviction and singular phrasing. Let England Shake comes from a profound place in both her heart and her intellect. It is yet another stunning piece of work from one of the great musical voices of our times.

Reverberating: 9.0

Friday, March 18, 2011

New York Dolls - Dancing Backwards in High Heels

New York Dolls - Dancing Backwards in High Heels/429 Records

Forget those other reviewers yammering about the New York Dolls’ new album Dancing Backwards in High Heels. I’m your man/fan. Why? A lot of them kids don’t get it, including the ones who like it. C’mon man, don’t even mention glam-rock or punk rock at this point. Unfortunately, those categories have ceased to help provide understanding. Instead, they short-circuit actual appreciation both of the Doll’s music and of its abiding place at the center of rock music over the last four decades. 

I mean … they dressed like tarts compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd or whoever. Okay. That was fun. That was cool. But it somehow obscured the Dolls’ achievements after a point. Drawing together a diverse, exciting collection of inspirations (the Stones, the Who, girl group and doo-wop, the blues … yadda, yadda) the New York Dolls stamped it all with their own unique personality (no crisis, baby). And really, really – they pointed a direction for the blues influence in rock to go. Seriously, how many fake virtuoso guitar dullards masquerading as blues lovers did it take before the stoned dumb-asses at the festival-seating venues of the early Seventies woke up? Ah, never mind. The fact is that the Dolls’ version of Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” (for example) had more genuine blues spirit than all the succeeding demi-generations of sterile blues copyists on blues labels like Blacktop and Alligator (the white dudes). There, I said it.

The New York Dolls are one of rock’s great treasures. Their influence is incalculable. Suffice to say that they are one of the few bands since the Sixties without whom the pop music landscape would look very, very different. And while their status as icons may not be as strong as those artists who built longer careers and bigger catalogs like the Beatles, Stones, or the Kinks (to name a few), the Dolls are in the elite company of artists like Big Star who left an enormous impact with two or three records (two in the Dolls’ case). Ask the Sex Pistols, the Clash or the Pretenders. Ask the Dead Boys or the Ramones. For that matter, ask Poison or Motley Crue – bands who by some truly strange twist of fate are on tour with the Dolls this summer (and believe me, some proprietary fans will have a field day with this tidbit).

The first act of the New York Dolls was enough to earn them a place in rock history; it should have gained them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by now (maybe someday). But since 2004 the band has proven F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously argued that there were ‘no second acts in American life,’ wrong. Theirs has been a rather remarkable second act.

After years of declining such offers, in 2004 the surviving Dolls (David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and Arthur Kane) accepted a bid from Morrissey, a major fan, to appear at the 2004 London Meltdown Festival, which Mozzer was curating. Recruiting the Libertines’ Gary Powell on drums and an experienced New York guitar slinger named Steve Conte, the band tore it up at Meltdown. Arthur Kane’s sad, poetic passing just two weeks after Meltdown from leukemia embodied the tragedy that had always dogged the band (original drummer Billy Murcia, quintessential skin thumper Jerry Nolan, and guitarist Johnny Thunders had all passed prematurely – all to one degree or another victims of misadventure or self-abuse). But Syl and David were feeling it, and decided to persevere. Sami Yaffa, from the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks- and a life-long fan, replaced Kane. Brian Delaney, who had worked occasionally with Johansen, joined as a more permanent drummer

To make a long story short, they rocked, audiences loved them and the band had a good time. Thus was born New York Dolls 2G. Their first “comeback” album One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This was a slightly sobered up, but no less rousing reset of the band’s aesthetic. 2009’s Cause I Sez So, produced by Todd Rundgren who helmed the band’s 1973 debut, was a potpourri of scorching rockers, bluesy workouts, Dylanesque folk-rock, existential philosophy and a reggae-fied version of “Trash” (from their ’73 debut). While the Dolls had become grown men with some very hard won wisdom, musically the new sounds were clearly an extension of their classic Seventies sound. Steve Conte was his own man, but sonically he stepped into Johnny Thunders’ shoes.

For their new album Dancing Backwards in High Heels David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain still draw from many of the same inspirations they always have – Sixties hard rock, girl-group stylings, Brill Building song craft, blues and beat poesy, but the sound of the new record is a revelation. Imagine a New York Dolls record with reduced emphasis on fiery guitar interplay. Sylvain plays keyboards on as many songs as he does guitar. Guest guitarist, Frank Infante, who played with Blondie in their halcyon days, plays tasty, textured, bluesy lines. Both axe men keep distortion and aggression to a minimum. The band and producer Jason Hill (Louis XIV) have concocted a vocals forward mix - at once sludgy and detailed – it’s compressed, but not in the modern rock super-distorted upper mid-range sort of way; rather, it’s mixed to approximate the sound of hit singles from the 1960’s blasting out of a car radio.

It’s a sound aesthetic that somehow suits the material. It’s almost as if Dancing Backwards was conceived as the New York Dolls pre-history, epitomized by the band’s adoring cover “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.” Johansen sings this quintessentially dramatic and brokenhearted chestnut with tenderness and an absolute absence of the campy qualities that characterized the audience’s perception of their treatment of such repertoire.

Sylvain, leaning on his Vox and Farfisa playing talents, is the real star of this record in many ways. His vocal arrangements, drenched in his love for doo-wop, betray a Beach Boys-like sophistication and musicality. The Dolls’ harmonies have always been, as Tina Turner once purred, “nice and rough.” Not so, here. Sylvain’s harmonies and background parts, sometimes supplemented by producer Hill and an occasional female chorus, are resplendently sophisticated, baby.

Johansen has spent a lifetime singing. I suppose his voice is still an acquired taste by the sterile standards of “American Idol.” It’s a voice of character – weathered and good humored, but on Dancing Backwards there’s no questioning his ability to get a song across. He’s never been afraid to engage his comedic edge; On “Fool For You Baby,” Johansen croons “gonna sing for you my foolish song …” and bargains “if the words come out wrong, at least it’s not long.” He may be in his seventh decade, but here he’s a grown up version of Frankie Lymon, goofily confessing his love. For “Streetcake” he moves from naiveté to street-wise braggadocio. While the guitars are not loud in the mix, Sylvain and Frank Infante lock into a churning dual-rhythm that propels the song. Dropping the names in rhyme of Pablo Casals, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, El Diablos, Tommy James and the Shondells, and yes – the New York Dolls (DJ has the history and the humor to pull of such self-referentiality), Johansen plays it like a Latin hustler wooing his gal with street-wise puns.

“I’m So Fabulous” is a caustic Johansen rant against the aliens with money who’ve invaded his beloved New York City. Syl and Frank blast horn-like lines on guitar, while an uncredited saxophonist (Jamie Toms … he’s the man with a sax elsewhere on DBIHH) blows r ‘n’ b with a surreal Andy McKay (Roxy Music) feel. Toms’ baritone part on the Motown influenced “Talk to Me Baby” harkens back to the days when bari-sax took on the parts that heavily distorted rhythm guitars assumed after the mid-Sixties.

“Kids Like You” is a sleepy shuffle; Johansen counsels “every formula for your salvation is actin’ on ya like a poison do.” He may be advising some young punks, but his words could just as easily be directed to the younger versions of himself, Syl and the original boys in the band. Here, as he often does, Johansen betrays the influence of E.M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher who was a master of the brain-teasing aphorism. Syl’s Percy Sledge steeped organ sounds and Infante’s slide playing contribute to the soulful, languid feel of the track.

Producer Hill keeps “Round and Round She Goes” from becoming a clichéd old-school rocker. Parts phase in and out of the track, hip-hop style, as Jamie Toms blows some rockin’ tenor against Johansen’s vocal (equal parts Louis Prima, Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown). No philosophizing from DJ on this one; it’s just about a girl dancing (“backward in high heels” … as a matter of fact).

The Dolls have successfully negotiated balladry before. Heck, “Lonely Planet Boy” from their epochal debut even qualifies. And Cause I Sez So featured the Dylanesque folk-rocker “Better Than You.” But Johansen has never sounded more convincing in this idiom than he does on “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Its “Save the Last Dance for Me” rhythms blend with elements reminiscent of vintage-65 Stones or Van Morrison – the string arrangements especially recalling Van’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra period. The commiserative alienation of lines like “astray in the universe, as we would doubtless be astray anywhere” are reinforced by the boho-assertion of “writing poems that lash more fierce than the wind blowing the newspapers through the square.” While comedic flair serves Johansen well more often than not, here he plays it straight and soulful and hits the nail on the head.

The Dolls’ cover of “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” extends the irony-free zone.
Johansen loves the girl group sounds of the early Sixties. “Junkman” is a song with a long history, dating back to a 1946 hit version by the Basin Street Boys, up through the better-known versions by the Silhouettes, Starlets and the Blue Belles. The lyric is tough, but sentimental in an artful era-evoking way that Johansen has a fabulous feel for and it comes across in his singing.

The existential beat poet shtick of “Baby, Tell Me What I’m On” represents the one spot where DBIHH flags a little. Johansen’s Eric Burdon after a few bowls thing is a little thick. But even here little touches like the ropey guitar lines sustain interest. “Funky But Chic” represents a homecoming of sorts for David and Syl. It debuted on Johansen’s excellent, self-titled solo debut from 1978, but it was written by the Johansen-Sylvain team and initially conceived as a Dolls track. And at last it is. Funkier, less guitar heavy than the 1978 version, “Funky But Chic” 2011 still sounds a lot like the Johansen solo version. It’s a witty, danceable celebration of shabby chic, written before anyone even knew what that was.

“End of the Summer” ends the album, sustaining the deep New York vibe that dominates DBIHH. It reminds me of the Rascals, especially tracks like “Groovin.”
The sweet, lazy groove and Syl and Mara Hennessey’s (DJ’s gal pal) doo-wop vocals belie the darkness of the lyric – ‘Life here is murder, everywhere else is suicide.”

If you’re a fan of the Dolls’ music – really a fan, not just a fan of gender bending (not that there’s anything wrong with that) camp, not just blazing guitars (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – DBIHH will thrill you. Johansen and Sylvain are riding high as a songwriting team. Always a talented singer and arranger, Sylvain’s vocals, vocal arrangements, and keyboard parts are all over this music, even as his guitar work is subdued. Jason Hill’s contributions on bass are critically musical and supportive, and his deft hand in helping the Doll’s create a different kind of ensemble sound can’t be underestimated. After three studio albums in five years Brian Delaney is 100% New York Dolls. Delaney’s drumming has that element of swing that the band’s vision of rock requires. He plays with the empathy of a band mate and the breadth of a session man – exactly what the range of the Dolls repertoire needs.

And then there’s David Johansen. He’s the Georgie Jessel of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s Mick Jagger after Joe E. Brown. He’s Bessie Smith on St. Mark’s Place. He’s Tom Waits without the cultivated eccentricity. Okay, whatever – I’m having fun here. The deal is: He’s one helluva singer, a distinctive poetic voice, and a rock personality of the writ largest order. Celebrate the dude while you can; He smokes … a lot. And celebrate the ongoing second act in the life of a great rock ‘n’ roll band by checking out Dancing Backwards in High Heels.

And hey … I got through this without any personal tales or close encounter reminiscences. Ain’t I discreet?

Reverberating: 9.2

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Me, the Fleshtones, Back to Rockville (the K.C. Star's music blog)

Review: The Fleshtones

Photo by Rick Hellman

New York’s Fleshtones call it “Super Rock.” It’s a high-octane mix of ‘60s rock (the Rolling Stones and the Swingin’ Medallions sharing a pedestal) and rhythm ‘n’ blues. It has thrilled the band’s devoted cult audience since 1976.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reverberations: Reverberations on Lykke Li and Wounded Rhymes

Reverberations: Reverberations on Lykke Li and Wounded Rhymes: "This is Lykke Li. To the right is the cover of her new album Wounded Rhymes. @font-face { font-family: 'Arial'; }@font-face { f..."

Reverberations on Lykke Li and Wounded Rhymes

This is Lykke Li.

To the right is the cover of her new album Wounded Rhymes.

 This is my review ...

Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes/(Atlantic)

I wrote a piece recently on a band from Detroit called the Witches, confessing that while I was familiar with much of their music I hadn’t heard it all. Yes, it’s true, even for a guy who works around this stuff all of the time it’s almost inevitable that you miss out on some great stuff. Actually, it’s part of the fun in a way. There’s always something to catch up on, something that’s fresh.

And so it is with Lykke Li. Li (Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson) is a Swedish born artist who just released her second album, Wounded Rhymes. I heard a song or two off of her debut Youth Novels. I enjoyed those songs, but didn’t get motivated somehow to take the deeper plunge into the entire album. Wounded Rhymes will send me back to her debut, because Wounded Rhymes is awesome.

I confess to being a rock 'n' roll guy, but I remain open to sounds cultivated in the pop garden since the eclipse of the guitar as the singular, even primary, instrumental expression of pop music. Although,I concede a primary affinity for guitar-based sounds. And sure, guitars are everywhere to this day - sometimes as music, sometimes as iconic props. But there’s no doubt that the pop music of the Eighties, transformed by rap and synth-pop, pointed the way toward a new popular music landscape that wouldn’t necessarily be dominated by twang, clang, and kerrang.

Lykke Li is a product of that shift. She’s also sufficiently schooled in the history of pop to embrace sound schools old and new, to incorporate classic rock guitar signifiers as well as electronic sounds – and to move between them, to shape shift and to integrate instrumentation, sound and style in captivating and moving ways. Many artists try to do this. Only a few succeed. Some of the credit for Wounded Rhyme’s success in this regard has to go to producer Bjorn Yttling (Peter Bjorn and John). Together, Li and Yttling construct a sound sometimes reminiscent of PB & J’s work, but in the final analysis something distinctly Li’s. Besides, if Peter Bjorn and John lack (even at their best) anything, it’s a truly engrossing vocal presence. They sing like songwriters who aren’t entirely comfortable with either the spotlight or singerly expression. Li addresses that in spades.

In a recent interview, Li dashed off a list of ten songs that were compelling listening for her at this stage in her development as an artist. The list included songs from Notorious B.I.G, Phil Phillips, Dolly Parton, TLC, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Shirelles, Brenda Lee, Salt-n’Pepa, and Roy Orbison. I don’t think for a minute that this historically and stylistically diverse set of references was a show-off move. Nope, you can hear all this on Wounded Rhymes. In terms of vocal timbre and delivery she shares something with singers as diverse as Ronnie Spector, Stevie Nicks (shared rasp and goat-girl vibrato), Joan Jett and fellow countrywoman Robyn. I also hear touches of Norma Barbee (the Velvettes, especially “Really Saying Something”) and even Madonna before she went all Kabbalah on our ass. Of course the trick is to absorb all these songs, styles and singers and still sound identifiable and unique – something Li accomplishes in a way few young singers do.

As a lyricist she captures the dying of adolescence beautifully – that feeling of being on the outside of whatever side there is, but desperately hoping that love will save you. A time when sex is confused for love, love is confusion, and sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it’s a drag. You know that time. Hey, rough days for every sensitive soul, especially you girls (as Marvin Gaye would say).

When she sings “youth knows no pain” in the song of the same name, against a musical backdrop suggesting the Syndicat’s "Crawdaddy Simone" – freakbeat on the way to the gothic disco, the ambivalence in her voice is unmistakable and magical. “I Follow Rivers” mixes, as is the case so often with Wounded Rhymes, live drums and programed tracks, spinning a pledge of love barely disguised as metaphor. “Love out of Lust” (a girl can dream) shares the brave, but wounded sensibility of Toronto’s Diamond Rings. Li’s singing also shares something of Julian Casablanca’s abraded vocal affect. When she sings “dance While You Can, dance cause you must” it sounds like both command and resignation.

“Unrequited Love” is as direct as its title, Li imploring over an arpeggiated guitar figure that sounds like a ghost image from some old Solomon Burke cut.  “Get Some” has been much discussed in early discussions of Wounded Rhymes, primarily because of the lyric “I’m your prostitute, yer gonna get some.” Li role-plays to get power over her man against a post-Bo Diddley/Strangloves/Dixie Cups rhythm.But under the confident surface there’s that hint of the pain that comes with submission.

Wounded Rhymes was written during Li’s extended stay in Los Angeles, where she escaped the chills of Swedish climate and culture for the sunny, but warped anonymity of la-la land. There’s an end of land, end of time sensibility that pervades the album, perhaps best captured on “Rich Kid Blues” (not to be confused with Terry Reid’s “Rick Kid’s Blues’), with it’s spooky, Doors vintage organ sound and vague resemblance to “Unhappy Girl.”  Li warns us, and herself, “delirious gestures are easily misread.”

For me, the instant classic on Wounded Rhymes is “Sadness is a Blessing.” Nowhere is the melancholy, haunted ethos of Li’s art captured better than here.  Li embraces her inner Ronnie Spector and suggests lost girl voices like Diane Renay, confessing that sadness is both blessing and curse and finally confessing “sadness, I’m your girl,” as if the cloud that accompanies her is more enveloping than any lover’s arms. “Sadness is a Blessing” is where Wounded Rhymes reaches the top of its emotional arc.

“I Know Places” is both promise and escape, suggesting the solace of “Up on the Roof” or “Under the Boardwalk” without the geographic specificity. “Jerome” (“swear you’ll never leave me”) might sound like desperation, but it’s a pop nugget of a song (both ballad and blaster) that’s brilliant simply for making a name like Jerome the center of a pop ditty. It also manages to square many of the themes of Wounded Rhymes into one of its simplest songs.

“Silent My Song” ends things on a pretty dark note. Li “feels the needle in her back” and confronts what sounds like abuse (“kick me till I drop”). It’s a song about objectification, and about it’s horrors as well as its invitations. As journeys go, and Wounded Rhymes is one, “Silent My Song” is a long ways from the opening of “Youth Feels No Pain.”  Yet it’s hard not to see that journey as release, as cleansing – at points painful, sometimes celebratory, climaxing in something like self-awareness. And when Li herself sounds conflicted or confused, Wounded Rhymes is a tremendously assured artistic statement.

Reverberating: 8.9

Friday, March 4, 2011

Lucinda Williams, a quick Reverberations look.

Lucinda Williams – Blessed/Lost Highway

For Lucinda’s new album Blessed, the production team of Eric Lijestrand and Thomas Overby returns from 2008’s Little Honey album, joined this time by famed producer Don Was. Mr. Was gets Lucinda’s backing band into a loose, rocking groove that recalls Neil Young here, Dylan and the Band there (as well as Southern ensembles from the Allmans to Drive-by Truckers). It’s the kind of casual, swinging feel he’d probably coax out of the Rolling Stones (he’s been at the helm for their last several records) if it weren’t for Mick’s tidier, chart-focused obsessions. This is of course ironic, given how much parts of Blessed sounds like the Stones. Ha.

Lucinda’s hymns to battered resilience and losers (beautiful and otherwise) are here, as always. She branches out, though, on tracks like “Soldier’s Song,” told from the point of view of a soldier in a war zone, and the title cut, which has the repetitive, incantatory groove of a southern Patti Smith. “The Awakening” shares a devotional, yet defiant quality with Smith, as well as having a swampy groove that’s thick enough for an early Dr. John record.

“Seeing Black,” addresses a friend’s suicide. This isn’t new turf for Williams. The title song from Sweet Old World was as gorgeous and elegiac a song as you’ll ever hear on such a grim subject. What’s new is the bruised intensity, even rage (but not judgment), of the questions she poses to the deceased on “Seeing Black,” as the arrangement builds steam and guitarists Val McCallum and Greg Leisz toss off Keith, Robbie and Richard (Thompson) licks at, with and for each other, kicking the song into another gear.

The southern grind of songs like “Buttercup” and especially “Convince Me” reinforce Williams’ Louisiana roots and give Blessed a deep soul dimension. She’s a universal artist, but her idioms are Southern to the core, both in terms of musical roots and language.

Guitar cameos from Elvis Costello are remarkable too, mainly for his not calling attention to himself; I suspect it’s a measure of the esteem he has for Williams’ vision. God knows I’m grateful he doesn’t try to sing with her.

Lucinda Williams has made many good records and a few great ones. It’s early listening, but Blessed sounds like one of the latter.

Reverberating: 9.0