ROCK IN THE REAR-VIEW (2023): Country-rock, from Garth, Bruce, Bon Jovi and Tom to Lucinda

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ROCK IN THE REAR-VIEW (2023): Country-rock, from Garth, Bruce, Bon Jovi and Tom to Lucinda

Decades ago Elsewhere learned some important lessons about who and what not to review: you never review charity singes or albums and never ever never go near amateur theatre productions.

For the latter if you say something slightly uncharitable you will be met with a chorus of voices yelling at you, "lighten up man. They're just amateurs doing their best,. Jeeziz!".

And with the former if you again are slightly negative people conflate your opinion about the music with a lack of support for the cause: "So you want kids to die of cancer, huh?"

Into this problematic territory there is also the comeback album by someone who has been ill.

This is a minefield, especially if the album comes from A Beloved Artist.

Like Lucinda Williams who suffered a stroke in 2020 and has now returned with the album Stories from a Rock'n'Roll Heart. Specifics on that in a minute but let's say this first: Williams is a great artist and Elsewhere has been a longtime fan . . . but we haven't been deaf to her shortcomings.

In recent years some of her albums have been indifferent in places, her songwriting less inspired and her voice burned down to a yelping drawl.

That's not something loyalists want to hear because their artist is above and beyond criticism. (In the converse, those who didn't like Norah Jones' debut glibly dismiss everything she's done since as just more of the same, when it clearly isn't if they would just listen.) 

Well, you can be a fan but also critical, not just of an artist but a genre -- and of critics, of course. 

When music writers discuss country-rock, for example, they invariably write about Bob Dylan in the late Sixties, the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Gram Parsons. Then it's the Eagles and . . . 

Fair enough, because there was the in-road into much that followed.

But when it comes to blockbuster country names like Garth Brooks – who dominated the charts, both mainstream and country, in the Nineties with his albums No Fences and Ropin' the Wind (among others) – the critics seem to run out of puff and interest.

Brooks was seen as some kind of pretender with little credibility, despite remarkable songcraft and dealing with issues like cheating and spousal abuse which others wouldn't touch as they celebrated working class values.

garthYet here was a country artist who was a huge rock fan and cited Middle America stadium-rock bands like Journey, Kiss, Styx and Foreigner as prime influences, the bands that weren't too hip to ignore Oklahoma while touring.

Brooks brought country's concerns and stories to the big arenas in packages which were full of rock gestures and staging.

Like it or not, Garth Brooks was a major figure in country-rock. But hip critics were dismissive. 

However Bruce Springsteen who – as, a crafted songwriter, studied Hank Williams and Pete Seeger – similarly brought the grandeur and bellicose nature of stadium rock to his own take on soul and country music. The hip critics embraced him.

His running mates included Bon Jovi, Tom Petty and many others who took songcraft to that massive Middle American audience, and along the way defined a new and somewhat narrow kind of rock'n'roll.

It was loud, came with big drums (take a bow Max Weinberg who cites the Dave Clark Five as his formative British Invasion influence) and was delivered so the punter in the furtherest seat in the bleachers was still hit in the chest.

Lucinda Williams grew up with country music but cites hearing the Pretenders in 1980 as confirming for her what she wanted to do in life. She became too country for rock'n'roll and too rock'n'roll for country . . . as she says in her excellent memoir Don't Tell Anyone the Secrets I Told You.

The recent stroke knocked her back – she can no longer play guitar – but her new album Stories from a Rock'n'Roll Heart is full of the rowdy redemption of what some now consider classic rock'n'roll, that is Middle American story-telling stadium rock.

lucinda_album_coverSpringsteen/Petty-influenced rock often celebrated itself and was what Springsteen sang about: “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school”.

This is all exciting stuff and Williams will doubtless rock those stadia and theaters again with fist-pumping songs.

But Stories from a Rock'n'Roll Heart is so musically conventional and lyrically familiar it lives down to its title through its sheer orthodoxy.

First let's concede the album comes with an impressive gathering of guests: Springsteen and Patti Scialfa are on the pounding title track (which comes off like an outtake from his album The River), Nashville country singer Margo Price, legendary songwriter-guitarist Buddy Miller and country-influenced New York rocker Jesse Malin (who co-wrote three songs and suffered a paralysing stroke himself last month).

Let's Get the Band Back Together is a boisterous barroom rocker which will doubtless be popular live and almost seems to invite special guests like Bruce, Little Steven and other Eighties stars to the stage.

Fortunately Williams – whose assured delivery is more assertive and unwavering than on recent albums – remains central so the album doesn't devolve into a self-tribute.

If anything it can seem more about the Boss and the boys club than Williams' once crafted, intimate songs.

The album is chock full of obvious lyrical and musical gestures beamed in from the bellicose Eighties: big guitar solos, swirling organ, stadium-shaped rock'n'roll styles (from Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop), stories of dead-end towns, last chance bars, jukeboxes and blue-collar boys.

You half expect to her lines from Sherry Darlin' and Hungry Heart scattered about.

brucespThe ballads are often swamped by the arrangements for organ, guitars or strings, notably Where the Song Will Find Me, an autobiographical piece buried by orchestration and a crowd-pleasing stadium-rock guitar solo.

There are moving songs here, Jukebox with Angel Olson reflects on her heartbreaking post-stroke situation: “These days my world seems so small, I'm a prisoner inside these four walls, going crazy with the sound of my own voice”.

Hum's Liquor is an elegiac tribute to the Replacements' Bob Stinson who died of alcohol-related illnesses in 1995 :“dragging demons around with you”. It features his brother Tommy.

This is Not My Town is pure Doors-like menace.

The final song is the assertive ballad Never Gonna Fade Away. Again it comes with swirling organ and another searing guitar solo.

The spirit of Tom Petty is embedded too, and we're reminded she opened for the final Petty concert in 2017: Stolen Moments is a new recording of her original about him which appeared on her 2021 tribute to Petty, the first in her Lu's Jukebox series. (The Petty tribute was okay but didn't persuade this writer to bother with subsequent Jukebox albums.)

Stories is an uneven but celebratory album attesting to her belief in rock'n'roll as a redemptive force. Which is very Springsteen.

But it's a very particular kind of rock'n'roll. 

While it's great Williams is back and sounding in such strong voice, rock'n'roll is a big canvas and Williams choses brash primary colours. The album too often offers overly-familiar and even cliched Middle American stadium rock of the kind Springsteen created the template for with his overkill songs on Born to Run and The River.

Good to have her sounding so confident, but for the most part here Lucinda Williams doesn't need to worry about being dismissed as too country for rock'n'roll.

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