The last time we featured Amos Lee on this site, about a year ago, he was subject to such a savage kicking that even I felt bad, so it is with utter delight to discover Honeysuckle Switches: The Songs of Lucinda Williams. So often do we feature Lu here, given her prodigious thirst for covering the songs of others, it becomes especially good to see the compliment returned.
Lee and Williams have form; always a fan, Lee had a dream come true as she collaborated with him, for “Clear Blue Eyes,” on his 2011 break through album, 2011’s Mission Bell. Returning frequently to her songs in his concert settings, he says of her that “her vulnerability opened my heart,” citing how “she embraces sadness but is never enveloped by it.” I think that sentiment perfectly embraces the bittersweetness so often apparent in her songs, and Lee shares that quality in spades, a fragile strength that bears witness to his having maybe faced similar battles along the road.
The setting for the twelve songs on Honeysuckle Switches is relatively simple, voice and guitar, with muted accompaniments. The songs come from all stages of Williams’ career, from the smoother chanteuse of her earlier country-folk-blues amalgam, to her more recent raw and ravaged southern rock. This allows, oddly, an idea of how the younger Lucinda may have tackled her later stuff, an opportunity that is likely beyond her current vocal range. First out is “Are You Alright” from 2007’s West, a song that frequently features as amongst her best. Lee imbues it with a similar yearning sensitivity, the repetition of the question underlining the concern that is soaked into the song. He double-tracks himself as the title gets asked and asked again. A quiet organ hums in the background, with perhaps just the hint of a steel guitar making an occasional peal to cut through the quietly strummed guitar. A clippy-cloppy percussion is only there if you concentrate hard, and, already you know, this album is on safe ground.
“Fruits Of My Labor” sounds an older song than 2003, gifted here with a slow gospel blues shuffle, electric guitars set to full shimmer. If it brings Sam Cooke to the tip of your tongue, that is no bad thing. That mood permeates, appropriately enough, into “Get Right with God,” a spiritual chorale cooing in the chorus. Lee somehow sounds like a Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, even, the song sounding pre-war, as in WW2. Astonishing. “Compassion” then becomes all the more a hymn than in Lu’s hands. If her heartbreak sounds secular, Lee exudes the Tabernacle in every hanging note, the touches of electric piano perfect.
“Everything Has Changed” sounds positively Dylanesque, in mood if not modulation echoing the “Not Dark Yet” years, which sort of fits the lyric. Applying the contrast between her husky drawl and his sweet croon, together with a touch of Everly sibling style double-tracked harmonies, adding further luster, it becomes a different song. And is that some smoky sax creeping in toward the end? “Born To Be Loved” is just such a darn sassy song, I wondered how he would tackle it, it coming as a gentle reassurance rather than the acerbic statement of fact in the original. Again, those soulful textures, that Lee can turn right on when necessary, make this appear another lost slice of Muscle Shoals, electric piano and swoony organ billowing around the economically clipped guitars and percussion. “Greenville,” surprisingly, doesn’t quite fit the transformative powers present elsewhere; if told this were something by Neil Young (and I don’t mean Greendale), it wouldn’t surprise, the clunky guitar solo adding to that sense, even as it later draws in a Tex-Mex meets the Drifters ambience into the mix. (I had to go back to Car Wheels to remind me of the original, so good the disguise.)
“Little Angel, Little Brother” is the oldest song thus far, from Essence, one of the most personal and poignant songs in Lu’s repertoire. Lee strays little from the original template, drawing perhaps just a little too much compare with that rendition. It strikes me forcibly that Williams actually can’t be copied and expect to be bettered, something even Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter discovered, however good their versions of her songs are. Talking of the former, “Sweet Old World” then gets played straight and plain, the vocal pitched a tad lower and stronger than elsewhere, extinguishing, at least for the duration, both the Emmylou and even the Lucinda versions. With piano adding some graceful lines from a third the way in, it is a loving interpretation that lingers.
“I Envy The Wind” is what, I guess, would be called a deep cut, also from Essence, the third track in a row from this album. (Maybe, like me, he feels this her best work?) It’s OK, but like “Little Angel, Little Brother,” the raw nerve of the original is irreplicable. Returning to this century comes the title track from West, which I fear I have to file under the same criticism. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine enough rendition; it just isn’t Lu, and neither has it that touch of glisten that enlivens so many other the songs here. Luckily he has his Sweet Old World hat back on for “Bus To Baton Rouge” (yes, another one from Essence), which bridges his folky with his souly, with the backing vocals, behind his ever so slightly hoarse lament, pure Bobby King and Terry Evans, high praise indeed. (And uncredited, that I can find.)
Most of Honeysuckle Switches is of sufficient appeal and invention to be both tribute and re-creation, stumbling only on a couple or so tracks, where maybe an excess of reverence has been allowed to creep in. I like this album; I think it would sustain a wider release, and perhaps one day it will. Welcome back, Amos Lee, all is forgiven.
Honeysuckle Switches tracklisting:
1. Are You Alright
2. Fruits Of My Labor
3. Get Right With God
5. Everything Has Changed
6. Born To Be Loved
8. Little Angel, Little Brother
9. Sweet Old World
10. I Envy The Wind
12. Bus to Baton Rouge