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Listening Room: Lucinda Williams, "Music & Lyrics" and more
Lucinda Williams, “West” (Lost Highway) ***
“Are you alright?” are the fi rst words Lucinda Williams utters on her latest album, and it becomes clear early on that she isn’t — or at least wasn’t when she was writing the songs for eighth studio set. There are reasons for that; Williams’ mother passed away between 2003’s Grammy-nominated “World Without Tears” and “West,” and there also was plenty of romantic turmoil, which has fueled Williams’ work throughout her career. So there’s a reason that, on “Unsuffer Me,” she’s inviting us to “come into my world of loneliness and wickedness and bitterness.” Few artists know what to do with angst like that better than Williams, however, and “West” is another work of bleak beauty in which her pain is our listening gain. This time out, Williams works with adventurous coproducer Hal Wilner, who brings an airy lush-but-spare sensibility to her laments with subtly placed strings, accordion, piano, Hammond organ and other sonic enhancements, including discreetly looped samples. All of that brings a freshness to even stock-in-trade Williams songs such as “Learning How to Live,” “Mama You Sweet,” “What If,” “Words” and the title track, a pretty waltz that closes the album. Wilner’s own avant aural leanings surface on the ambient “Rescue,” and Williams gets to breathe a little more fi re in “Come On,” a recriminating paean with a nicely stretched instrumental middle section. Only the nine-minute beat poem “Wrap My Head Around That” misses the mark, taking a compelling idea and letting it meander about twice as long as it should. Otherwise, Williams wins the “West” here, giving us an album that’s more than alright.
Soundtrack, “Music From the Motion Picture ‘Music & Lyrics’ ” (Atlantic)**
We may roll our eyes, but there’s always a degree of fascination when a top-shelf movie star such as Hugh Grant takes a stab at music in a meaningful way. In “Music & Lyrics,” Grant plays a ebbing ’80s-style pop singer (think Rick Astley or ABC’s Martin Fry) and sounds credible enough on upbeat tracks such as “Pop Goes My Heart” and “Meaningless Kiss,” though we wouldn’t recommend he try to go all Eddie Murphy or John Travolta on us. The love ballad “Way Back Into Love,” which Grant sings, separately, with co-stars Drew Barrymore and Haley Bennett (who plays a Britney Spears-type pop singer), is prototypical of the form, though let’s hope more cutting-edge tracks by the Sounds and Teddybears steer a few, or even a few million, Hugh fans toward some more vital fare.
New and noteworthy
Blue Öyster Cult, “Spectres” and “Some Enchanted Evening” (Columbia/Legacy) — Expanded editions of BOC’s 1977 and 1978 releases, the latter a live album with seven bonus tracks.
The Bluetones, “The Bluetones” (Cooking Vinyl) — Five albums in, the British alt.rockers return to producer Hugh Jones (the Damned, Echo & the Bunnymen), who oversaw their first two albums.
Josh Harris, “Distortion on the Dance Floor” (Universal) — The DJ incorporates Tom Jones, John Digweed, the Killers and more on his latest batch of dance mixes.
Ricky Jay, “Ricky Jay Plays Poker” (Octone/Legacy/RCA) — An oddball box set that mixes instruction with a “perfect hand” of music that includes Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline, among others.
Gerald LeVert, “In My Songs”
(Atlantic) — The late R&B singer’s final album, completed shortly before his Nov. 10 death.
Low Stars, “Low Stars”
(Starbucks Hear Music) — The coffee chain makes its third run at breaking a new act with this harmony-oriented California vocal quartet.
Anais Mitchell, “The Brightness” (Righteous Babe) — The poetic singer-songwriter from Vermont has found a sympathetic label home at Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe imprint.
Van Morrison, “At the Movies: Soundtrack Hits”
(Manhattan) — A 19-song compilation of the Irish veteran’s movie contributions includes some big hits (“Gloria,” “Domino,” “Real Real Gone”) and a previously unreleased live version of “Moondance.”
Po’ Girl, “Home to You”
(Nettwerk) — The Vancouver quartet delivers a second set of jazzy, bluesy, folky, punky alchemy, fortifi ed by more than two years on the road to promote its debut.
The Kelly Richey Band, “Live at the Thirsty Ear” (Sweet Lucy) — The underappreciated troubadour and her trio caught in stripped-down action in Columbus.
Martha Scanlan, “The West Was Burning” (Sugar Hill) — The debut solo set from the former Reeltime Travelers member and contributor to the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack.
Anya Singleton, “Not Easy to Forget” (Hybrid Music) — The second album from the Tunisian-born singer-songwriter who’s been compared — favorably — to unforgettable forebears such as Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfi eld and Rickie Lee Jones.
Soundtrack, “Starter for Ten” (Rhino) — The ’80s rock again on this soundtrack set, with fi ve Cure songs joining tracks by Tears for Fears, Psychedelic Furs, Yaz and Motörhead.
Storyhill, “Storyhill” (Red House) — Another set of harmonyladen acoustic pop from the Montana duo, produced this time by Semisonic’s Dan Wilson.
The Young Dubliners, “With All Due Respect — The Irish Sessions” (429) — The Los Angelesbased Celtic band gives its heritage props on this set of traditional tunes and Pogues covers.
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