Trio of gems from country’s female voices
Alittle bored with the “bro-country” thing? Still broke up about “The Civil Wars” breakup? Getting restless waiting for this year’s new Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert albums? Hang on, relief is on the way. Tuesday brings a trio of new releases from country music women that could be just the answer to your “Early 2014 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” blues.
Not one of these three albums — Jennifer Nettles’ “That Girl,” Rosanne Cash’s “The River & The Thread” or Lucinda Williams’ “Lucinda Williams” — is remotely likely to come close to Swift/Lambert sales territory, but what will that matter when they end up in your CD player for the next six months?
Ms. Nettles, better known as the female half of the country duo Sugarland, has the best chance of making a splash on the charts. Her first solo album is produced by Rick Rubin, the legendary rock and rap Svengali who also earned a lot of street cred in Nashville circles thanks to his work on Johnny Cash’s final albums.
Ms. Nettles’ album enjoys a breezy, mid-’70s, country-rock feel — from the Laurel Canyon vibe of “Jealousy” to the bossa-nova flavored title track “That Girl.”
Described by Ms. Nettles as the counterpart to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” “That Girl,” released last year, made some “Best of 2013 Country” lists despite — or more likely, because of — an idiosyncratic, syncopated sound that sets it apart from the year’s onslaught of beer-and-pickups songs.
A Georgia native, Ms. Nettles cites Linda Rondstadt as a major influence, but there’s a reason she’s one of the performers chosen to pay tribute to ’70s icon Carole King as part of the Grammy’s festivities later this month in Los Angeles. You can hear the singer-songwriter introspection and the distinctive jazzy flourishes of Ms. King’s “Tapestry” all over Ms. Nettle’s album, never more so than on the first track, the intimate and powerful “Falling.”
It’s not surprising the album doesn’t sound like the typical Nashville product.
Ms. Nettles, 39, has always worn her affection for pop on her sleeve (Sugarland unabashedly covered and charted with the British dream pop nugget “Life in a Northern Town” in 2007, after all).
For the album’s 11 tracks, Ms. Nettles recorded in Mr. Rubin’s West Coast studio and collaborated with non-country songwriters like Sara Bareilles and Richard Marx (don’t pretend you don’t remember the chart-topping “Don’t Mean Nothing” from the ’80s).
If Ms. Nettles is eclectic for a mainstream Nashville artist, how to describe Ms. Cash? At this point in her career, the daughter of the country icon transcends the genre, putting out music for herself and her fans.
Her latest, “The River & The Thread,” is a literary, bluesy travelogue taking listeners down lonely Southern roads and along muddy rivers, across time, music, murder and history, with Ms. Cash, her silky voice in fine form, serving as ethereal gothic narrator.
Based on Ms. Cash’s car trips across the South with husband and longtime producer John Leventhal, “The River & The Thread” is as evocative and beautiful as anything else she’s done. If anything, the polished, quiet elegance of songs like “Tell Heaven” and “The Long Way Home” could use a few more rough edges.
The singer and her husband live in New York after all, not Memphis, and sometimes these plaintive elegies feel like a Manhattanite’s thoughtful meditation on the South.
In its ambition, “The River & The Thread” reminds me of alt-country queen Lucinda Williams’ first majorlabel album, “Lucinda Williams.”
OK, I know I said three new releases, and this gem came out originally in 1988. But it’s been out of print for 10 years, and to celebrate the album’s 25th anniversary, record label Rough Trade put together an expanded edition — the original 12 tracks augmented with 20 additional cuts, most live performances.
The bonus cuts repeat several of the original tracks, but if your exposure to Ms. Williams’ catalog is limited to “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” you won’t mind. That 1999 masterpiece earned a Grammy nomination and made Ms. Williams a critical darling, but the selftitled album from 10 years earlier is every bit its equal.
“Passionate Kisses,” later taken to the top of the county charts by Washington, D.C.’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, is the most familiar track, but there are also rockers like “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” the ferocious blues of “Changed the Locks,” and the achingly beautiful Cajun two-step of “Crescent City” — a song that effortlessly captures the sense of place, longing and loss that Ms. Cash aspires to on her album.
Ms. Williams, like Ms. Cash, is a literate daughter of the South. Both women bring an indisputable authenticity to their music. But where Ms. Cash can feel like an observer, Ms. Williams sounds — especially on this 1988 classic — like the living and breathing manifestation of the girl who was “busted flat in Baton Rouge” with Bobby McGee.
“Lucinda Williams” is one of the albums that fueled the alt-country movement of the ’90s — if you missed it, this is your chance to find out what all the fuss was about.