The 11 Best of Lucinda Williams: The Dallas Observer and Rock Remnants

I saw on Facebook today that the Dallas Observer had a feature listing Lucinda Williams’ 11 best songs. Williams is one of my favorite songwriters and performers and, without looking at the Observer’s list, I thought it might be a nice challenge to come up with my own 11 favorites. Here goes:

“Passionate Kisses,” Lucinda Williams

Pretty much a perfect pop song, though the arrangement here (as on this third album as a whole) is a little too clean and pretty. Or, maybe, not shiny and slick enough for pop radio. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover was a big hit.

“Pineola,” Sweet Old World

Harrowing story-song that crawls forward into the deepest of griefs, then explodes into a howl of defiance and resignation.

Live version of Pineola, plus Drunken Angel (which is listed below).

“I Lost It,” Car Wheels On a Gravel Road

An oldie from Happy Woman Blues that she rerecorded with the hard rocking band that defined her sound in the middle years. The 1980 version is lovely, sounds as classic as a Hank Williams track, while this is slower, more bluesy, more pounding, like a Hank Williams Jr. track (without the cheese).

“Drunken Angel,” Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Sneering angry rant, makes the feet tap and the skin crawl.

“Greenville,” Car Wheels On a Gravel Road

Achingly sad breakup song, with Emmylou Harris singing harmonies (on the record, not the clip).

“Metal Firecracker,” Car Wheels On a Gravel Road

Has the poppy spright of Passionate Kisses, but delivers a breakup song full of hurt and a wishful rewriting of history in plain lovely language that kicks off on an irresistible hook.

“Lonely Girls,” Essence

Simple poetic language and a subtle folky reggae setting, doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t have to. I could listen to this all day.

“Essence,” Essence

A churning insistent atmospheric punch of love, it is at this point in her career her most naked expression of masochistic surrender, except that if this is surrender I’d hate to see the war.

“Changed the Locks,” Live at the Fillmore

The studio version on the Lucinda Williams album has the bones of a great song, but this live version is loud and scratchy and a full expression of the song’s anger and defiance.

“Fancy Funeral,” West

Plain and plaintive observation following her mother’s death. More intimate for its impersonal but poignant details.

“Honey Bee,” Little Honey

A flat out rocker that sounds more like her live band rampaging through that Texas rock sound that ZZ Top (maybe) invented.

Conclusion: Many shared tunes with the Dallas Observer, it turns out, and many differences. A note about Side of the Road, their No. 1 (they ordered their list, mine is chronological) tune. It’s a fantastic story song, as the writer says, sad and yet not depressing, an evocation of being a person in something larger than yourself but not sure where that ends and you begin. I left it off my list because I’ve always found the verse about looking up at the farmhouse a little clumsy, and that’s a fair judgement perhaps, but playing it again just now I’m reminded about how great a song it is despite that. It should be on my list of 12.

2 thoughts on “The 11 Best of Lucinda Williams: The Dallas Observer and Rock Remnants

  1. Agree on Lucinda so much Peter.

    I have to confess a real weakness for the title track on Car Wheels, since the song is such great storytelling with such fine imagery.

    Love Metal Firecracker and 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten, too.

    I guess it’s my fave.

    • I had the great pleasure of seeing her the day Car Wheels came out at Tramps, a very fine small club around the corner from my apartment at the time (in 1998). The band she toured with for that album was way more muscular than she’d had before, which meant the show was physical as all get out, and loud. The funny ironic thing for me about Car Wheels on the Gravel Road and 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten is that I love listening to both songs, just so long as I’m not hearing the words. Lucinda is a fantastic lyricist/poet, but when she gets it wrong (as I think she does on those two songs, and that one verse in Side of the Road, to mention another) she’s just a little too self-conscious for trust. But the cool thing about both Car Wheels and 2 Cool is that they sound fantastic (and lots of the words are great).

      My favorite Lucinda Williams album is Happy Woman Blues, released on Smithsonian Folkways back in 1980. She was a precocious child who wrote awesome country tunes that sounded like they were 50 years old, but came out of her head sweetly. And I love her album of covers from back then, called Ramblin’, too. One song I almost listed was her cover of Howling Wolf’s “I asked for water, give me gasoline.” It’s pretty fantastic though not as cranky as Howlin’s version, and more evidence for my thesis that many of the best covers are recorded by great songwriters. Check it out…

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