Trio of gems from coun­try’s fe­male voices

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY DAVID ELDRIDGE

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.

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