Sunday, November 18, 2007

albums of the day

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams.

Yes, it's an American country album. Run screaming from the room if you wish at this point. But that reaction, though it's a visceral one some people seem to have (the same goes for English folk music, as I pointed out in a couple of earlier posts), would be a shame. Because this is actually rather good.

Clearly we're not in Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers territory here; this is all a bit more gritty than the Nashville mainstream (Williams is from Louisiana). This is much more in the country-rock idiom, from the chiming guitars of the opener Right In Time (which is pretty unequivocally about sex in a way that would probably have made Dolly Parton's hair curl, or possibly her tits fall off) and the title track which follows it. Williams' weary drawl of a voice is somewhere between Chrissie Hynde and Sheryl Crow - there's an argument here for "paying your dues" (translation: slogging round the country touring for 20 years) as Williams was 45 when this album was released. I'm not sure a 25-year-old could sing these songs with the necessary conviction.

The pace dips a little in the middle of the album with the slower numbers Concrete and Barbed Wire and Lake Charles, the first of which provides an amusing mondegreen, as it sounds for all the world as if she's singing "concrete and Bob Dwyer", though I accept that's unlikely.

Then it's back to the boogie shuffle of Can't Let Go, the rocky I Lost It, the waltz-time Still I Long For Your Kiss which featured in the film The Horse Whisperer, and the bluesy Joy and Jackson to finish with.

In Rainbows by Radiohead.

It would be a shame if the unusual selling strategy adopted for this album overshadowed the music, but it was an interesting one: download the tracks from the band's website and, beyond a mandatory fee for postage and packing, pay as much or as little as you like. Some surveys suggest that most purchasers opted for the "as little as you like" option (i.e. £0, or $0 if you're in America), thank you very much. Bloody students, I expect. For what it's worth (you see what I did there?) I slipped them six quid, excluding P&P. Which means I'm going to heaven.

Anyway, the music. The skittering electronic drumbeat at the start of the opening 15 Steps gives the listener pause for thought and perhaps a slight gulp of apprehension - are we in for another "challenging" Radiohead album in the Kid A or Amnesiac vein? Then after 40 seconds or so you get a twisted little guitar riff and the song settles down a bit. Then after 2 minutes or so Colin Greenwood's bass and some kiddie-choir singing kick the song up another gear, and you can sit back, relax and unclench the buttocks. It's all going to be all right.

Bodysnatchers with its bassy, distorted guitar figure is as orthodox a "rock" song as they've done since OK Computer, though in general this isn't a particularly "rock" album, despite being largely guitar-based. The songs are more in the slow arpeggio-y style of No Surprises than the rock epic style of Airbag or Lucky. Nude is a queasily gorgeous ballad, All I Need is just a bit odd with its menacing synthesizer backing and strange fragmented lyrics about being "an animal trapped in your hot car", Reckoner is very reminiscent of Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk, and the glum piano ballad (with random percussion stabs) Videotape is a suitably arresting conclusion.

Kingsley Amis must have hated every half-decent book he wrote after 1955 being hailed as "his best since Lucky Jim", just as John Irving must hate every book he writes being reviewed somewhere with the phrase "his best since Garp". Undeterred by that I'm going to plough on and say it anyway: this is their best album since OK Computer. Sorry guys.

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