Blonde on Blonde 

Lucinda Williams and Elizabeth Cook, two great folk/country songwriters with much in common.

Elizabeth Cook

Elizabeth Cook

Like most people who cared about such things back in 1998, I thought Lucinda Williams made a career album with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, that painstaking document of and testament to Southern identity. Fifteen more years down the road, it's unclear how conventional wisdom has settled on the matter, but I've rethought my position, now prizing even more Williams' 10-years-earlier eponymous breakthrough, Lucinda Williams. Where Car Wheels now feels like something to admire — scratch that, something to wonder over — Lucinda Williams has coiled its way around my heart.

It's a less perfect record, and maybe that's partly why it cuts deeper. Car Wheels may peak at the very beginning, but every song is of a piece. Lucinda Williams is comparatively uneven. Half the songs are brilliant; the rest offer companionable support. The breathless, yearning opener — "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad" — rushes by in 21 lines, nine of them a repetition of the title refrain. "Changed the Locks" is a love-gone-wrong song that builds steadily toward the cosmic, managing to be horrified and comic all at once. "The Night's Too Long," a fictional story of a small-town girl moved to the city, and "Crescent City," an autobiographical sibling song, are sketches so precise you can feel the cool moisture coming off the beer bottles in the bars where one song ends and another begins. And then there are "Passionate Kisses" and "Side of the Road" — twin titans about the imperatives and limits of romantic love that are at once visionary and also grounded in the everyday. Throughout, Williams' breathy, marble-mouthed, tinglingly evocative vocals — her signature, if anything is — are just a little more naked and open than they'd ever be again.

The simpler secondary songs — the straight country "Price To Pay," the alt-country Velvet Underground "Like a Rose," the lonely lament "Am I Too Blue" — give the album some room to breathe, and they grow more lovely all the time. The closing Howlin' Wolf cover? A turf grab. Not just a declaration of artistic support but one of artistic equality. Williams will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the album by playing it start-to-finish to open her show this week at Minglewood Hall.

Though she's another blonde, female, indie-but-not-really-alt country/folk singer-songwriter with a colorful (Southern) family background, Elizabeth Cook is not quite an artist of Williams' magnitude. But at her best she can fool you into thinking she is. "Mama's Funeral" is an autobiographical family song that matches Williams at her own game. "Heroin Addict Sister" is one no one could quite match. Both of those are from Cook's most recent and best album, 2010's Welder. And while Cook's career album (so far) isn't as classic as either of Williams', it's also less distant in the rearview mirror.

She's funnier, on record and — oh boy — in person, where she topped headliner Todd Snider at last year's What the Folk Fest at the Levitt Shell and where she's got several memorable Late Show with David Letterman interviews waiting on YouTube for your discovery. And that makes her more relatable. Cook is a mortal. She's one of us.

Sometimes she's smarter too, in an everyday way — humor and brains tend to go together, after all. In Cook's musical world, an El Camino isn't a signifier of retro cool (see Williams' "Lake Charles") but a signal that, hey, this dude hitting on you at the bar might be a little creepy. And she doesn't romanticize her unreliable musician boyfriend as a "Drunken Angel" but instead — on "Rock n Roll Man" — punctures his self-conscious cool.

Cook, who hosts an "outlaw country" show on satellite radio, is a cult artist — self-penned gems like "All the Time" and "Girlfriend Tonight" are ace Nashville readymades even if Nashville doesn't know it — but one whose cult is growing, as witnessed by her Levitt Shell return this week, this time with a night all to herself.

Lucinda Williams

25th Anniversary Show

Minglewood Hall

Tuesday, September 10th

7 p.m., $30 in advance,

$35 at the door

Elizabeth Cook

The Levitt Shell

Thursday, September 5th

7:30 p.m., free



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