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music reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Essence

Artist: Lucinda Williams
Genre: Rock
Release Date: June 2001

Review by LarryG
2 stars out of 4

Essence isn't an awful record but after the brilliance of Lucinda Williams previous work, especially 1998's Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, it is disappointing. Both musically and lyrically, Essence lacks Car Wheels' vibrance.

Williams apparently tried to simplify her writing to its essence for her new CD. Unfortunately, she's removed a lot of the detail which makes her songs interesting. Williams' new approach only really works on a couple songs. Lonely Girls repeats a very limited number of images. The stark musical setting, with very quiet guitar, organ and drums, combined with Williams' empathetic vocal, fills in the gaps so in the end Williams doesn't have to say more than "I oughta know about lonely girls." Out Of Touch is very quiet but its musical restraint matches the sad, simple story of a couple who awkwardly try to be civil to each other after a breakup.

But on most of Essence, the lack of particularity and any rock and roll juice limit the songs' appeal. Williams and her band do a good job of creating a sexy edge for Williams' tale of a love like a drug on Essence's title track, holding back and going nice and slow. But Williams' Dr. Seuss style rhymes("I am waiting her for more, I am waiting by your door", "I am waiting in my car, I am waiting at this bar") are dopey and I often find the song more draggy than sultry. Essence doesn't match up to the moody masterpieces like Change The Locks and Metal Firecracker it resembles. I Envy The Wind is sweetly sincere but it's also kind of boring. Williams slowly goes through all the elements she envies for being able to contact her love. Steal Your Love sounds familiar and it's also repetitious. Williams just keeps stating her determination to steal his love. So many songs on Essence are colorless that it's hard to keep paying attention. Gloomy, minimal instrumentation and Williams' passive, affectless vocal are appropriate for Blue, a song about being depressed, but the music certainly doesn't invite the listener. Are You Down is muffled, but the guitars and Reese Wynans' organ still create a good bluesy feel. Are You Down starts with a decent image("can't put the rain back in the sky") but doesn't go much beyond that, repeating the same few ideas then a nasty kiss off: "nothin' will make me take you back, are you down babe, down with that?" Reason To Cry is a pretty good, very restrained traditional country song that covers the same basic lyrical territory as Out Of Touch. Ramsey's guitar playing isn't as good as Gurf Morlix' rich work on Williams' previous records but he does pretty well with spare arrangements that don't give much opportunity to shine. Bus To Baton Rouge, about taking a trip back to a house from long ago in an attempt to "be free from these chains inside hidden deep down in my soul", is a pretty nice ballad that reminds me of Sweet Old World's Little Angel, Little Brother. But it's very slow and loses its appeal over its six minutes. Essence ends with Broken Butterflies, another very subdued song, is most notable for its somewhat wacky biblical allusions. Williams accuses a guy of being "like Pilate in his self righteousness" and wonders if he will "bleed the way Christ did."

Amid the drab songs Get Right With God, the only uptempo song on Essence, is especially welcome. Get Right With God, about being willing to make severe sacrifices to get to heaven, is a shuffle like Car Wheels' Can't Let Go and the best showcase for Essence's guitar players Ramsey and Charlie Sexton, who play good, grungy slide guitar, and veteran drummer Jim Keltner, whose gifts are woefully underused on the CD.

Essence is an OK CD that hardly has any bite. It generally works as pleasant background music and has some moments of beauty but the music is often so slow and quiet that it's just boring and lifeless. Hopefully, Essence is just a one time experiment for Williams or the result of a sad time or post breakup depression that's passed and Williams will soon return to making the evocative, spirited music of her previous records.



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