Lucinda Williams, ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20,’ Highway 20 Records
Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams digs deeper into raw, mystical electric blues on her new double album, “The Ghosts of Highway 20.” Focused on faith, death, the afterlife and rural Southern settings, “Highway 20” sounds like a William Faulkner novel put to music.
It’s not a fun listen; it’s not something you’ll sing along to; it’s not something you’ll put on at a party. But it conveys a haunting gravitas that conjures spirits and rattles bones. Those willing to lose themselves in the severe tone of the arrangements and the stark imagery of the lyrics will find “The Ghosts of Highway 20” casts a spell that will move you to contemplate the verities of existence.
Musically, the album alternates between dirges (“Death Came”) and gnarled mid-tempo tunes with guitars tangled like barbwire (“Dust”), with forays into hymns (“Doors of Heaven”), voodoo rhythms (“If My Love Could Kill”) and waltzes (“If There’s a Heaven”).
Guitarist Bill Frisell, with his watery chords, spars with fellow string wizard Greg Leisz, adding to the album’s other-worldly tone. The two covers, Woody Guthrie’s “House of Earth” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory,” fit with the album’s obsession with survival and transcendence. “Ghosts of Highway 20” confirms that Williams belongs in their company.
Elton John, ‘Wonderful Crazy Night,’ Island
Elton John puts some pep in his pop on “Wonderful Crazy Night,” a more upbeat, natural-sounding album than recent efforts.
Driven by distinctive piano riffs and benefiting from the energy provided by the return of longtime drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, the 10 tracks, including lead single, “Looking Up,” shine without gimmicks.
Lyricist Bernie Taupin and percussionist Ray Cooper — tambourine on five tracks — also lend their talents to John’s 33rd studio album, his third in a row produced by T Bone Burnett and the most streamlined of the trio.
Lyrics and melodies are well matched, and while John and Taupin have collaborated on some autobiographical albums and songs, they don’t seem to reveal much this time around.
“I’ve Got 2 Wings” tells the story of Utah Smith, a little-known Louisiana preacher whose efforts to spread the Good Word were aided by an electric guitar and a pair of colossal wings. In other tunes, Taupin’s images are more worldly but no less fervent — like the title track’s “ice cubes on the back of your neck,” or “you’re an open chord I’m gonna play all day.”
Several songs like “A Good Heart” or “Blue Wonderful” could fit on John’s albums from decades ago, boosted now by a freshness in his voice he didn’t always have back then.
“Wonderful Crazy Night” may not be as colorful as its cover, but it’s a lively, classy effort.
Charles Kelley, ‘The Driver,’ Capitol Nashville
On the song “Leaving Nashville,” singer Charles Kelley delves into the personal and professional struggles that a songwriter faces after tasting a modicum of success. The complex narrative establishes why this member of the country trio Lady Antebellum wanted to record a solo album: Kelley’s intimate, emotional performance would have sounded out of place with a group identified with vocal interplay and harmonies.
Kelley’s album, “The Driver,” focuses on moody, dramatic songs about love (the outstanding “The Only One Who Gets Me”) and life on the road (“The Driver”).
Working with producer Paul Worley, Kelley mostly ignores country music’s recent obsession with beat-driven tracks that incorporate hip-hop and hard rock. Instead, Kelley’s sound draws on 1970s and ’80s mid-tempo adult rock.
In a duet with Stevie Nicks, he nails the stubborn social commentary in Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents.” Elsewhere, he takes cues from the heartland rock of Bob Seger (“Your Love”) and the silky soul of Boz Scaggs (“Lonely Girl”).
Kelley keeps things tight — the nine songs clock in under 40 minutes — to maintain a steady mood. A theme album in an age of singles, “The Driver” is another fine example that country music is poised to shift away stifling trends and strive toward a more individually expressive era.