Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Lucinda Williams, The Pretenders, Jolie Holland

Lucinda Williams

Little Honey

Pretenders

Break Up the Concrete

Jolie Holland

The Living and the Dead

On paper, little seems to bind the music of Lucinda Williams, Chrissie Hynde and Jolie Holland. But on their newest albums, the three escape to the country to take stock of the cracks in their respective worlds. What results are songs of hard knocks, heavier hearts and surprising senses of salvation.

Americana queen Williams shakes off the melancholy reserve of her past three albums on Little Honey. The opening Real Love sets the pace with a blunt electric fire that she hasn't summoned in years. The grind gets good and nasty on Honey Bee ("all up in my hair, honey bee I swear, we make quite a pair"). But the song's redemptive spirit is as bright as its cowpunk gusto.

A 66-minute opus, Little Honey is best listened to as a whole. That's because the charge simmers to a cool on the more contemplative Knowing, cranks back up for a spit-and-spat country punk duet with Elvis Costello on Jailhouse Tears, and retreats again during the gospel meditation Heaven Blues. The album finishes with an outrageous testimony of life on the road called It's a Long Way to the Top.

"You think it's easy doin' one-night stands? Try playin' in a rock 'n' roll band," Williams sings on the latter against a fervent rock/soul chorus. The mood is boozier and more world-weary than on Little Honey's more overt romantic encounters. Yet Williams, even when love is on her side, remains a scrappy fighter. Rapture remains the prize. But it sure is cool to hear her throwing some solid electric punches again as she seeks it.

Hynde still wears her heart on her sleeve at times on her new Pretenders outing, Break Up the Concrete. But lighter fare like Love's a Mystery and You Didn't Have To are more arresting because they match Hynde's proven pop smarts with alt-country accents. Longtime Son Volt sideman Eric Heywood colors the former with pedal-steel guitar, and new Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne adds accordion to the latter.

Still, this all-new Pretenders lineup (founding drummer Martin Chambers still performs with the band live, although Jim Keltner mans the kit on Concrete) is at its best when Hynde kicks up some metaphysical dirt on the rockabilly album opener Boots of Chinese Plastic. She later re-embraces her Ohio homeland ("what kind of club opens its gates to sinners like me?") to make The Last Ride sound like a happy sequel to 1983's disparaging My City Was Gone. But the killer is the Bo Diddley boogie of Rosalee, in which Hynde stops Pretend-ing and approximates the roots charge of Los Lobos. It's a cool move.

Holland was once a darling of the indie-pop set, but her songs have reached plenty of ears over the past five years. Don't tell me iPod priestesses like Feist haven't picked up more than a few ideas from Holland's records. This Canadian songstress makes the combination of a sullen sentiment, a light but downturned vocal inflection and a melody of steady-handed pop sound all her own. There are country currents as well on her new The Living and the Dead. But they turn suitably creepy during Fox in its Hole, in which chiming, nocturnal guitars and the mix of reverb, Tom Waits-style percussion and seesaw vocals bring Williams to mind.

But Holland is at her graceful best when she expresses uneasy release during You Paint Yourself In. The melody is deceptively summery, even as Holland's vocals fade to whistling. It's almost as if a bird was fleeing. "What burns is torn away, and what remains is beautiful promise," Holland sings. "You have no choice but to fly." The Living and The Dead doesn't just fly. It soars with learned but wary confidence.

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