On the stylistic range of alt-country musicians, Neko Case occupies one smooth extreme with her warm twangy charm, and Lucinda Williams sits squarely on the grungy opposite. To Case’s top-down convertible gliding down Route 66 is Williams’ smoke-spouting rig — messier, louder, more dominant and every bit as comfortable on a dusty road. And on the 55-year-old veteran’s 10th LP, Little Honey, this rough musicality graces every track making for a solid disc of bluesy, rocking listens.
Williams must feel comfortable writing what often feel like country standards, as the majority of Little Honey spins along effortlessly. Strummed ballads flow into shamelessly sparse blues breakdowns, sounding more like an intimate bar performance than a polished — or forced — studio project. Williams wisely uses her smoky voice as each track’s centerpiece and allows the album’s unusually optimistic lyrics (for her, at least) to linger warmly.
Little Honey opens with a false start, sputtering to a stop then replaying a few noisy chords and kicking into the happy sentiments of “Real Love.” This peculiar opening sets an organic tone that enhances Williams’ rough-and-tumble country — placing the listener on that dusty highway rest-stop of Williams’ liking instead of in front of some living room speakers.
By the time mid-album growler “Honey Bee” hits, three stunning ballads have rolled by, including the smart and emotional breakup tune “Circles and X’s.” But following these softer affairs, “Honey Bee” surprises with its rampant metaphorical sexuality. Williams belts out “Oh my little Honey Bee/ I’m so glad you stung me/ Now I’ve got your honey/ All over my tummy.” Whiskey-soaked country demands a little bit of lyrical edge, and Williams has no problem using her sharp wit to provide it.
It’s her lyrical prowess that carries the album, keeping even the sprawling eight-minute “Rarity” from dragging too much. Williams manages to combine poetic grace and country iconography with the refrain of “If Wishes Were Horses,” singing, “If wishes were horses/ I’d have a ranch/ Come on and give me another chance.” Her uncomfortably realistic argument-duet with a mournful Elvis Costello in “Jailhouse Tears” recalls real-life conversational punctuation while slinking along to the beat.
But Williams saves some of her most powerful emotional stops for the end of Little Honey with a trio of introspective folk songs built on her lyrics. Much of Williams’ new work continues to prove her instrumental capacity and her band’s penchant for raucous solos, but the softer tracks highlight her songwriting. The album’s title comes from a line in “Rarity,” the tale of Williams’ strife in a business built around commercial gain and vocalizes the story of her career expertly without getting overly nostalgic or personal. She sings, “You won’t be attending/ Meetings with presidents/ Of companies pretending/ To protect their investments/ While they suck the gristle/ Off the bones of your art/ Unfaithful and fickle/ Seductive and smart.” The song does drag — if only due to its lack of brevity — but still is another poetic stunner.
And it leads in to the closing AC/DC cover “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” The track closes the album with dirty noise and just the right amount of last-minute rock, but it also mirrors “Rarity” nicely. Williams’ recording career has been long and sometimes disappointing though consistently productive. Little Honey takes all that practice and condenses it into a disc that’s a little tighter, more optimistic and lyrically worthwhile than past work and does so with just enough country-swagger to reward the fans who’ve been listening along the way.
4 stars out of 5