Review: Lucinda Williams "Essence"

Category: Music

This thread is intended to be a review of the Lucinda Williams "Essence" CD released in July 2001. I hope to have others write their critiques along with mine on this thread. I also encourage others to begin review threads of other disks they have enjoyed with the hope of developing a library of reviews to have on file. Please understand I have no background in evaluating music so it may be a tad crud.

This disk is a following up to Lucinda's highly acclaimed 1998 release "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road." As customary with Lucinda, the time between releases is too long for this fan, but more than worth the wait. "Essence" is less like "Car Wheels" and more akin to her 1988 self titled release, "Lucinda Williams." The majority of "Essence" is quieter and far more instrumental than her past effort. I would relate this disk to the "Greenville, Still I Long For Your Kiss and Jackson" cuts on Car Wheels. The cuts of "Abandoned, Like A Rose, Am I Too Blue and Side Of The Road" on her self titled disk all have a commonality with Essence along with the live bonus cd cuts #13-18. (If you have not had the chance to hear this disk, please do so, it's a must!)

I have continued to enjoy all but one of the cuts from the "Essence" 11 song collection. A few of my favorites would be #3 "I Envy The Wind," #4 "Blue," #6 "Are You Down" #8 "Reason To Cry" and #11 "Broken Butterflies" As you can tell from the song titles Lucinda's life still appears to have its low spots, but that makes for some great writing. I believe Lucinda is among the most talented song writers today. On this album she has raised the bar by a couple of rungs in that these songs are more like poetry and stories than catchy tunes. Her first inspirations that lead to her becoming a musician came from hearing Bob Dylan's Highway 61 album, and it shows here in her creative inner meanings. "Broken Butterflies" is the best poetry put to song in a long time, this is a very special track. The music scoring (also by Lucinda) is every bit up to the quality of song writing. She assembled a new band for this venture and the sometimes four guitars (often acoustic) along with a Hammond B3 organ are played to perfection. On quite a few tracks the lead guitar is reminiscent of Peter Green during his Fleetwood Mac years. Just exquisite! The drummer shows an incredible control over his craft, on "Are You Down" the effect is wonderful as the sound appears to recede into the sound stage. But it's Lucinda's voice that still does it for me. One could hardly call it beautiful or smooth although she has more of that quality here than in the past. I call it honest raw emotion with less concern for a pretty tune, but more a focus on purity. For those who have heard and enjoy Lucinda you know the gravelly, throaty emotion of her soul. Here she has created a backdrop of that quality and mixed it with a deep soft warmth that combines for an experience not found in any other musician. Maybe Emmylou is comparable, but not in tone, just emotion.

On the song "Blue" she is able to show all her vocal abilities at once. A soft, warm, almost innocent voice is contrasted with a raw jagged gravelly sound that has helped display profound pain and loneliness. No where is this more acutely shown than in the closing bar. Often on this track a canvas of sound is created with the raw energy, only to be pierced with a pinpoint depth of her words. The only way I can think of describing the effect is with the image of walking up to a cold window, either in your house or even the supper market. If you breath on the window the glass will fog, a tightly directed breath created a tight opaque spot, where an open chesty breath will fog the entire window but the glass retains its transparency. This is the effect that the harsh and gravely voice created, filling the entire sound stage with an etched picture and yet the deep soft words are still able to come through as if a small spot of the fogged window was wiped clean. The song is incredible and if I was to summarize the feeling I get from this disk, it would be that picture I've tried to paint.

I have listened to this disk almost every night and it still has yet to wear. If you need a new Lucinda fix pick-up "Essence" and don't forget her 1988 self titled disk either.

JD agree with you about "gravel road" and "lucinda williams"
being great CDs, haven't got a chance to hear "essence"

More ways to spend money, did you notice "gravel road" has
HDCD remaster in 1998, have you compared this remaster to
previous CD? I am amazed at the flood of remasters in the last couple years, most are quite good.
I can shorten my is a fantstic disc. I have also seen her in concert and she shines live as well. I have three of her discs and maybe because it is new .."Essence" is my favorite. Also take note that she is now recording with some very good musicians: Charlie Sexton on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums, Jim Lauderdale on backing vocals just to name a few. Great music by a great artist.
No I have not heard the remaster of Car Wheels, maybe someone could give us there thought if they heard it.
Excellent Review J.D.

I picked this up last week and I too really enjoy this disc.

Although it is comprised of many more slower numbers - the tunes are evoking in their intricate and sparse arrangements. Her lyrics here are moving and capture the "essence" of a searching and street worn soul. THis album reminds me of Gram Parson's in a female personna... that's a good thing

excellent disc and great review, thanks

Excellent review. Have her on CD from "Happy Woman Blues", "Ramblin'", "Lucinda Willaims", cd and vinyl, plus her last three and on vinyl "Passinate Kisses"on the rough trade label, and "Just want to see you so bad"...the last a 12 inch vinyl 45....she is awesome.......glad to hear she is as great in person....regards to all, Bluenose
Hi JD; I like "Essense" also, and your review is excellent. And to me, it's a toss-up between "Essense" and "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" as to which I like better. "Car Wheels..." was released in 1998 in HDCD, but the only way you'd know that is a notation at the back of the liner notes, or if your CD player or DAC tell you. My 360S DAC shows it as a readout.

The HDCD version is an excellent recording. I didn't know it was previously released in a non-HDCD version? "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" is folksy, bluegrassy, blusey, and poppy, but it all comes together and is great. Tunes range from slow and nice to track #7, "Can't Let Go", which has percussion and guitars popping out all over the soundstage, and, in fact, I often use this track to demonstrate dynamics and soundstaging. There is some nice slide guitar on this CD too.

Tracks #6 and #10 "Lake Charles", and "Greenville" are slow, bluesy, and beautiful with L. Williams characteristic breathy, raspy voice. On track #12, vocals aren't recorded that well, but there is some great slide guitar, rhythm, and percussion. There isn't a weak track on this whole CD. All songs except one were written by L. Williams. She certainly has emerged as a premium singer-songwriter. I sure recommend this CD. Cheers. Craig
I was addicted to "Car Wheels" last year, and thank God, unlike some addictions I was able to cut back instead of having to quit cold turkey.
"Essence" comes out softer and slower, and if you are looking for that harder edge you have to wait for a few tracks. First listen to this disk may not reveal how special these songs are. If you think you hear a hint of Neil Young here, or even a faint breath of Lou Reed there, keep listening, its all Lucinda.
Production on this new disk is great and really shows off the bands ability to give every song its own feel. Every song is crafted with care, but still seems to come out with candor and honesty, strait from experience.
I have been a big fan of Lucinda Williams for some time and "Essence" does not disappoint.
OK, I picked up *ESSENSE* My first Lucinda CD. It's country music right? Does everyone on this thread agree? In all honesty the first listen did not knock my socks off.(Although I did enjoy the first track) I try to keep an open mind when listening to something new. As a rule I don't listen to country music at all. Maybe this is the problem? It doesn't do for me what Joni Mitchell,Tracy Chapman or even Sheryl Crow did for me the first time I heard their stuff.

Anyway I won't give up just yet. I will try a couple more times to see if it sinks in. WISH ME LUCK:~)
Sorry for confusion, Garfish is right "gravel" original release 1998 on Mercury label was HDCD and there is no remastered version.

However "lucinda williams" CD from 1988 was remastered in 1998 by Randy LeRoy, I have this version and it comes with cardboard oversleeve, expanded booklet and CD has 6 bonus tracks 5 of which are live, 18 total.
Jadem, an exemplary job on this review. I have not heard this release, but plan to add it to my collection after reading your words.

You made this look easy, but this is in fact, difficult work. Music is emotional, and coming up with the right words as to what is unique about this creation technically and artistically requires a great deal of focus.
Glen, yes her soul is in country, but in the same vain as Lyle Lovett. East Texas blues/ country/ rock. Stick with it, I don't listen to country either, but if you liked Tracy Chapman, you'll like this too.

I've seen Lucinda four times live. She plays a dive bar/nightclub in Minneapolis called First Avenue. The venue allows for about three thousand packed in and I have never been more than 20' from the stage. AWSOME!! If she comes through your town it's worth the $15 we pay at First Ave.
Glen; I agree with JD in that L. Williams may have a country soul, but I don't consider this a country CD. As I noted above, I think it has elements of folk, blues, bluegrass, and pop, and I'd also add country. But like the Cowboy Junkies, this music is very difficult to classify IMO. Craig.
It's starting to grow on me but I don't think I could go an inch further in that direction. One twang'd note and I'm standing in line at the return counter. This has been her saving grace so far. (no voice twanging) I think the twang I heard was just my cat (She seems to be enjoying the cd more this time around also) Sounds a little like Joan Osborne with maybe a hint of Susan Vega.

To be truthful I don't collect new music so I may be a little to critical. I normally don't even consider buying anything that hasen't stood the test of time for at least 5 years. That's just me!!!
With Lucinda, often less is more, but Glen you realize that, if you took a liking to the first track "Lonely Girls", which has, like, all of six different lines of lyrics. There's a great kind of stillness in this album that may take time to sink into your pores. Or, she might not be your type. As far as her soul, I think LW was bred in rural blues but her soul ranges far and wide, through country, folk and rock, as far as -- judging from comments she's made -- punk and grunge. I even think the intense inwardness yet unadorned spareness (no psychotherapeutic ramblings here) of her writing shows something of her punk/grunge leanings. Of course, it could just be the delta blues. Still, I could see her itching to just thrash it out for one whole set or CD. I think she didn't quite hit the mark lyrically on a few tunes on Essence but still like the album very much. Oh, thanks, JD, for your review. --Jayson
I confess the album bored me after awhile. The songs run the same vocal line into the ground, as if she was unable to generate a bridge vocal. I know bridges can be gimmicky, but a well thought out transition reinvigorates the verse melody. To my ear at least, without one, a verse/chorus song drags to a close.