Weary-voiced alt-country songstress Lucinda Williams typically sounds like she’s singing about her last dollar or a lost lover. “Little Honey,” her ninth full-length studio record, is more stylistically diverse than last year’s “West,” which surrounded Miss Williams’ haunting vocals with an elegiac post-punk flatness.
“Little Honey” is not characterized by the same unremitting anomie, but the listener who dwells on the more country-inspired tracks will find plenty to cry about.
Her voice churns with authentic pathos on “If Wishes Were Horses,” a bitterly rueful song about a broken love affair that, while plainly sung, is undergirded by a rhythm that heaves like sobbing. Miss Williams sings, “Wish you were bringing your love back to me/ Instead of leaving/ But if wishes were horses, I’d have a ranch/ Come on, give me another chance.”
On the page, the words seem a little flat and maybe even a little corny, but Miss Williams sings with perfect authenticity, etching inflections of pain and sorrow.
However, she also shows off a sly sense of humor, in her joyfully mocking cover of the AC/DC metal anthem, “It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Want To Rock and Roll).” It’s as unlikely a cover as the New Pornographers’ version of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” if not quite as affectionate.
Miss Williams duets with guest artist Elvis Costello on the campy “Jailhouse Tears.” Atypically, she lards her vocals with a put-on twang that sounds truly strange alongside Mr. Costello’s slight but pronounced English accent. In the song, Mr. Costello details an improbable string of coincidences leading to his incarcerations to a skeptical Miss Williams.
“Heaven Blues” is a low, plodding John Lee Hooker-type blues, with a growling acoustic guitar strumming just after the lyrics. Miss Williams’ road band, Buick 6, is in solid form, but the song isn’t much more than a well-crafted museum piece.
“Little Rock Star,” a guitar-heavy song about the dangers inherent to an artistic career, approaches epic length at nearly six minutes. In a way, it’s Miss Williams’ own version of “It’s a Long Way to The Top” without the heavy dose of ironic distance.
Elsewhere, “Honey Bee” is a bruising rock number with an aggressive guitar attack, scorching solos and a simple, direct drum part.
Overall, the album has a disjointed feel, flitting from country to rock to blues, with the strongest tracks positioned up front. Over the course of a 30-year recording career, Miss Williams has developed a reputation as a perfectionist - an artist who won’t release an album until every note is perfect. The songs on “Little Honey” are tightly structured, but there is some looseness and spontaneity to the performances. It’s not Miss Williams’ strongest album, but it is extremely listenable with a few welcome moments of transcendence.