Like many a songwriter, Lucinda Williams is a sucker for American gothic –backwater Southern towns, two-lane country highways, wasted blue-collar lives. Williams? “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” is a veritable jambalaya of such scenarios — from the Georgia household (with its ?screen door slamming shut?) of the title song to the bar brawl victim of ?Drunken Angel? to the ex-couple digging motorcycles and ZZ Top together in ?Metal Firecracker.?
Williams doesn?t stop at writing about such subjects. She takes you there just by opening her mouth. Her voice — a mix of hard-earned wisdom, barely repressed horniness, wistful resignation, and sheer crankiness — is an evocative instrument all its own; it has dust in the windpipes. When she drops a reference to bathroom graffiti in a Mississippi juke joint in ?2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,? be prepared to flush.
Williams has rarely sounded better. And when her voice meets a first-rate song (and some accordions and Dobros), few country-folkies more acutely evoke the elementary highs and lows of daily life. The remake of her own ?I Lost It? replaces the Cajun-laced jaunt of the original with torn-and-frayed grit; ?Metal Firecracker,? in which she implores a former beau to not ?tell anybody the secrets I told you,? is both sad and prideful. Accompanying herself on rusty-carburetor slide guitar, Williams makes ?Can?t Let Go? sound like a newly unearthed Delta blues gem.
The album, only Williams? fifth since 1979, has been in the works for three years. At times, the effects of such excessive tinkering are frustratingly evident. The romantic-daydreaming ode ?Right in Time,? in particular, suffers from production that?s too clean for its own good. Overly note-perfect arrangements zap the life from a couple of other tracks as well, like the grainy title song. But in a world inundated with cookie-cutter, Lilith-ready wimps, these are small gripes. There?s enough gravel on Williams? wheels to fill a West Texas dump truck.