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Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams' voice conveys raw vulnerability. From her earliest recordings with Smithsonian Folkways to the more polished product of, say, 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she hides nothing. Whatever the band, producer or personal circumstances surrounding the process, Williams never allows daylight between her and the listener. Her voice betrays her inner landscape at every turn, with every note.

So it's surprising to read some early reviews critical of the overly personal quality of Williams' latest. Produced by experimental musician Hal Willner, West was supposedly fashioned from scratch vocals. Willner constructed arrangements around these tracks, giving West a gritty sound that no amount of effects can improve upon. This is as close to the bone as Williams has ever sounded. Still, the songs are accessible.

She freights two-chord opener "Are You Alright?"--a phrase that in lover's speak actually means "do you still love me?--with such mournful despair that you won't know what hit you. "Learning How to Live" will likely find its way into the brokenhearted jukeboxes of the South ("They say the best is yet to come / But the taste of you is still on my tongue"). Don't spin the title track too late at night, because when Williams sings "I look off in the distance / And blow a kiss your way," you'll feel the loneliest ghost brush against your shoulder. West is the first real country-rock masterpiece of the 21st century.

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