Lucinda Williams is a veteran singer and songwriter who released two albums on the Folkways label nearly a decade ago, but since then she has played mostly to smart folk-and-country-inclined listeners who've frequented the right clubs in Houston, Austin, Louisiana, New York and, for the past several years, Los Angeles. But Williams was always on the periphery of L.A.'s vaunted "new country" scene, simply because she's too elusive a talent for narrowcasting: she sings with a down-home twang in her voice, but she also knows her way around Delta-blues songs like Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" and is capable of writing buoyant pop standouts like "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" and "Passionate Kisses."
She does justice to that full range on Lucinda Williams, but there's nothing showy in the way she goes about it. Instead, the album is a low-key, beguiling affair: plain-spoken lyrics, straightforward melodies, simple arrangements. Writing almost exclusively of longing, loss and desire, Williams has the sense and the skill to make her points in the most direct and least clichéd ways possible: "Side of the Road" is a striking, tentative declaration of independence; "Changed the Locks" is a hilarious but disquieting blues-rock hymn to post-breakup paranoia; and "The Night's Too Long" is a finely drawn honky-tonk equivalent to "Fast Car."
The no-frills approach lets you hear plenty of human frailties. If that means an occasional tentative vocal or an awkwardly blunt line, it also helps reinforce the feeling that you're listening to a singer who is simply telling you the truth about herself. And that's welcome in any genre.