Fiery Australian lap steel player Anne McCue befriended Williams four years ago, when singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, a mutual friend, gave Williams a copy of her album. Williams showed up at McCue's next Nashville gig and invited McCue to join her on tour. (McCue is opening for Williams Friday at the House of Blues.)
"She's a very independent artist. She doesn't cowrite songs," says McCue, who has Williams guesting on vocals on her latest, Koala Motel.
West, Williams' latest release off Lost Highway Records, is a project that shows a mature artist, and specifically a grown woman flexing the strength of experience and skill. She packs an exhausting range of feeling into a baker's dozen of songs, which turn on two emotional axes: the recent death of her mother and a love affair which, from the lyrics, we can safely say ended badly. Williams' best songs are lyrically spare and wistful. They always take place after the event, in a place of rumination or processing, and these two intense experiences are perfect fodder for her delicate, intense touch with the postmortem. For West, Williams brought in a classical violinist, Jenny Scheinman, who did the string arrangements for violin, viola and cello. She also uses atmospheric jazz guitarist Bill Frisell instead of her usual guitar player, honky-tonker Charlie Sexton, which adds mournful, slow-building intensity to tracks like "Unsuffer Me" -- a complete departure from her rootsy sound but for the familiar marble-mouthed drawl. It's a powerful reminder of what alchemy takes place in the studio. Sometimes the arty darkness works the way Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind did -- sometimes it doesn't bear up enough, paired with often too-simple lyrics, to be worth it. The minimalist repetition of one or two simple lines for most of a track like "Joy" off of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road created a mesmerizing kind of hoodoo spell on top of a twangy guitar line thick and tough as a whitewall tire. Here, on a song like "Learning How to Live" or "Everything Has Changed," laid on top of fluttery strings that retreat into the background, the overall effect is much less.
The album kicks off with "Are You Alright," a transcendent, shimmering opener that's a gentle, sad note to a lost love. The song uses that tried-and-true Williams technique, repeating the title refrain until it turns prayerful, and it's such a tender, pensive, sweet song that it's almost shocking that it stands, side by side, next to songs like "Come On" -- a balls-out bitch session that starts with the word "dude." It includes lyrics like "Dude, I'm so over you" and "Dude, you're so fired." As a listener, it's hard to decide whether the song is completely great or just plain embarrassing; a fit of delicious, immature bile from a woman scorned, riot grrl-style? Or maybe just TMI venting that should have been told to a best friend over (many) drinks, and not recorded. Either way, the title is repeated at the end of each verse in the line "You didn't even make me, come on!" "Unsuffer Me," though, which is smoldering and full of the promise of hellish fury, is the best showcase for Scheinman's dark and moody strings.
Again, it's amazing how bipolar the album is while still working overall -- probably because of the song order -- as a cohesive piece of work. The plaintive, almost painful "Fancy Funeral" -- about her mother's funeral, which Williams felt pressure to pay for but didn't attend -- lets everything but the strings and her voice recede into the background, letting the understated, heartbreaking lyrics stand alone in a way that's reminiscent of Gram Parsons' suicide special, "Thousand Dollar Wedding." And in counterpoint to it is the nine-minute burn-it-all-down venom-spitter, "Wrap Your Head Around That," where Williams conjures sarcastic, righteous anger in a chanting style that sounds like Mick Jagger on Some Girls. It's also where Frisell's guitar -- with a deep, violent grind -- lets you know why it's there in no uncertain terms. You can't ignore the fact that unlike Williams' last four or so all-killer-no-filler discs, West has some forgettable content. And taking so much of the country out of the country girl, when you add it up, winds up more flat than anything else. But the album contains so much fire as well that for fans it'll be enough to burn out the lukewarm parts of the album.