Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's a big country

Lucinda Williams
Score: 7

Jesse Sykes
& the Sweet Hereafter

Like, Love, Lust
& the Open Halls of the Soul

Score: 6

Lucinda Williams grew up in the South. Jesse Sykes grew up in the Northeast. Williams lives in Los Angeles. Sykes lives in Seattle. But it's the inner landscapes that really matter, and both artists have tromped through plenty of inhospitable regions.

Those journeys shaped West and Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul: the struggles, the heartaches, the regrets, the anger, the will to keep on going.

West, for the most part, is a quiet affair. The band exercises restraint, putting the focus on Williams' penetrating lyrics.

"What If," a meditation on how the world would change if everything were rearranged, begs to join John Lennon's "Imagine" and Joan Osborne's "One of Us" on the philosopher's playlist. It mixes the absurd ("If cats walked on water") with the bleak ("And flowers turned to stone") and ends up poignant ("If children grew up happier / And they could run with the wolves / And they never felt trapped / Or hungry or unloved.")

The hushed, haggard "Fancy Funeral" advises against splurging on last goodbyes because "No amount of riches / Can bring back what you've lost." Apply the money where it will make a difference, Williams says, like groceries and covering the bills.

On the one song Williams cuts her band loose, "Come On," she sounds empowered, hollering over the din. Although her voice tightens with contempt, it's apparent that she takes immense satisfaction in slagging off a self-absorbed suitor, wielding broken-bottle verses like "You think you're in hot demand / But you don't know where to put your hand."

If West is a diary, Like, Love, Lust is a manifesto. Encompassing at least four weighty and intangible subjects in the title alone, it aims to be grandiose and universal, and to do it without abandoning the Sweet Hereafter's dark country rock.

Appropriately, the most affecting moments on Like, Love, Lust often don't come from Sykes' lyrics, but from the larger presence of the guitars, or when a harmonica or horn section dominates a relative silence. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Wandscher unleashes not one but two searing guitar solos on "LLL," and "The Air Is Thin" piles up band members' vocals into a towering chorus.

It's too bad Like, Love, Lust has a drier sound than 2002's Reckless Burning and 2004's Oh, My Girl: It overemphasizes the wheeze of Sykes' voice. And that quality is more noticeable here because on several occasions Sykes sings with minimal or no accompaniment.

More important, however, is the fact she weaves a thread through the songs (that would be dysfunction), unifying the album with a love-is-a-battlefield theme. On the viola-caressed "Morning, It Comes," she says, "Baby i know / that this love is a feature / that's lost on us creatures so small."

Happy endings don't happen 'round here.