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(By Allan Messer)

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Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams may spend the rest of her career trying to prove that the powerful songs and performances on her early records weren't a fluke. After starting with two blues albums, she took a more country/folk bent with three records that were lush with vivid imagery and expressive vocals -- particularly 1998's stellar "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." More recently, her albums have flattened those compelling textures into generic alt-country fare, giving a tedious one-dimensionalism to 2003's "World Without Tears" and her latest, "West."

Ultimately, what once was Williams's greatest asset now works against her: Her dry, hoarse voice used to drip with emotion; on "West," she snarls to the point of seeming harsh and detached, even on the most tender lyrics. She tackles the melancholy "Where Is My Love?" with a grating whine rather than the wistful sigh it requires, and she sludges through her adjustment to a breakup on "Learning How to Live" with such a flat delivery that it sounds not only sorrowless but also formulaic.

Glimmers of the Williams of yesteryear do occasionally peek through: She enhances the contemplative feel of "Rescue" with gentler vocals and a stunning string melody. Despite the coarseness in her voice on "Fancy Funeral," her cynical outlook and grief-laden tone expose her devastation at her mother's death. Unfortunately for Williams, though, those poignant moments grow fewer with every album, leaving little hope for a return to her warmer, more engaging sound.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Rescue"

-- Catherine P. Lewis


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