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in performance: trans-siberian orchestra

the trans-siberian orchestra performing last night at rupp arena.

Spending an evening with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is akin, in many respects, to over indulging at the dinner table at holiday time. Everything is inviting and offered in abundance, so you readily accept. But the food never stops coming, so those partaking do so far past the saturation point. The result: a feeling that surpasses mere satisfaction and soars straight into gluttony.

Transfer that kind of feast into a concert presentation and you had the makeup of what TSO offered last night for its annual seasonal performance visit to Rupp Arena. With about 9,800 dinner guests in attendance, the ensemble poured it on thick, both visually – via an onslaught of lasers, pyrotechnics and screen projections – and sentimentally, where original compositions by the late Paul O’Neill came sugar-coated in pathos and individual performances were bolstered by a litany of rock star postures.

Overblown? That doesn’t begin to describe it. Like past Rupp outings, this TSO show was spectacle for spectacle’s sake – a presentation that tied an anchor as well as a bow around conventional holiday cheer and tossed the whole gaudy package overboard.

Before going any further, it should be noted that the audience ate it all up – the Spinal Tap-like excess, the Kiss-like flamboyance, the WWE-level of sheer physical stamina. And why shouldn’t they? In terms of technical design and execution, the show was a marvel. Few were the moments when stage platforms didn’t bob up and down or shift with the aid of remarkably clear screen projections that shifted the look of the set from a movie theatre to a cathedral to a winter snowscape in mere seconds. Similarly, the lighting design, from dancing lasers to showers of computerized effects, was beyond dazzling. The production was even climate controlled, with huge rows of flames shooting from the stage one minute and dancing suds of makeshift snow falling over the arena audience the next. In short, this was a production and-a-half, even by TSO’s theatrically intensive standards.

But at the same time, there was hardly an instance – especially, in the first half of the 2 ½ hour program, which was built around a stage recreation of the band’s 1999 television film “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” – that wasn’t choreographed to the point of claustrophobia or delivered with an excess that made even its sweeter emotions – like the ones summoned during the Pachelbel-inspired “Christmas Canon Rock” – seem coerced.

Curiously, the most human element of “Ghosts” was reflected in segments shown of the original film that featured the late Ossie Davis. The 18 year old clips didn’t allow Davis to utter a word, yet they reflected a subtle warmth and grace the rest of the program bulldozed over.

The concert’s second half was looser, owing less to the production piece structure of “Ghosts” and more to TSO’s non-holiday material. But by the time the show hit a seemingly inevitable “Carmina Burana,” the bombast was back to stay.

Again, the quibbles here are largely with the overall framework of TSO’s productions and their unrelenting pageantry as opposed to the performers and performances igniting them. And, again, the audiences fully appreciated the feast being served, even if it seemed less like a holiday gathering and more like an alien invasion.

critic’s pick: neil young, ‘decade’

Why should we give much concern to the re-release of an anthology? Well, when it is as valuable a representation as “Decade” is to the critical and commercial heyday of Neil Young, a celebration is unavoidable.

Upon its initial release 40 years ago, “Decade” was designed less as a conventional greatest hits set and more like the sort of retrospective blueprint adopted for detailed boxed sets that are now commonplace milestones for veteran artists. Even Young, who decided on the song selection, viewed “Decade” as the summation of a chapter, rather than a career.

In listening to “Decade” again in 2017, the record presents an astonishing sense of history that simply couldn’t be appreciated upon its initial release. Much of the reason stems from how uneven Young’s music has been since then. There were certainly triumphs that post-dated “Decade” (in particular, the Crazy Horse summits “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Ragged Glory”) and there is no denying how wildly prolific and stylistically adventurous he has always been as an artist. But the decade chronicled on “Decade,” without question, represents Young’s glory years – a period of psychedelic pop expression, Laurel Canyon folk reflection and garage rock rampaging that wildly predated the punk and grunge movements. Similarly, those adventures play out here through songs with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. To explore that music again on “Decade” is to retrace one of the most creative eras in the evolution of modern pop.

The striking points of Young’s early years are represented though unobvious songs like “Expecting to Fly” (officially a Buffalo Springfield track, even though Young is the only band member playing on it) and “The Old Laughing Lady” (from Young’s 1969’s self-titled debut solo album). Both remain gorgeously surreal portraits that let their folk preferences warp into the epic orchestration that ran rampant during the “Pet Sounds”/”Sgt. Pepper” era. They sound less like Southern California folk than they do the Moody Blues.

Subsequent years would offer folk tunes of homespun candor and simplicity (“Sugar Mountain”), electric statements of stunning topicality (“Ohio”) and extraordinary mergers of the two (“Walk On” and “For the Turnstiles,” both from Young’s most underrated album, 1974’s “On the Beach”).

“Decade” stops slightly short of being a complete chronicle of that time. Young’s lost 1973 live masterpiece, “Time Fades Away,” is again ignored. Likewise, the 10 year period represented here means excluding the two classics that closed out the ‘70s, “Comes a Time” and “Rust Never Sleeps.”

But with three hours of essential listening packed onto two discs and selling for a mere $15 (a vinyl reissue, which surfaced back in the spring, costs a bit more), the resurrection of “Decade” serves as the restoration of a pop legacy.

Want to know why Neil Young is so revered? Here’s the primer that tells almost the whole the story.

the rock and soul of nikki hill: “a rebellious way to get in people’s faces”

nikki hill.

When one views at all the varied inspirations, stylistic expressions and performance experiences that have bolstered her career, it would be natural to consider Nikki Hill as a living artistic contradiction.

She learned to perform in the church but has never viewed herself as especially religious, revering the Cramps and AC/DC as highly as gospel. She found favor with the traditions of R&B and soul, but has proven to anyone who has seen her perform – including the crowds that have caught her numerous Lexington shows over the past two years – that the North Carolina reared, New Orleans based singer is a rocker at heart. And while she is very much a child of the South, the music on her recent ‘Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists’ album is less tied to specific genres or geography. It’s rural Alabama juke joint soul one minute and Detroit-worthy rock ‘n’ roll the next.

“I never entertained being a singer, let alone a front person,” said Hill, who returns to Central Kentucky as part of Well Crafted – Brews + Bands on Saturday. “I loved the idea of being a part of a group that could make people feel the way that all those bands I’ve seen over the years have made me feel, and maybe even record music that other people would be interested in hearing.

“Little Richard and Otis Redding and The Cramps are probably the ones that stand out where I would catch myself thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ The images and playing of Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Barbara Lynn also showed me women that I felt were more representative and identifiable for me. Seeing and hearing them play made it seem like a true possibility for a woman like me and a different and more rebellious way to get in people’s faces.”

Music began for Hill, as it did with so many R&B, soul and even rock-based artists from the South, in church. But singing in the choir didn’t necessarily mean she bought into being part of the congregation. Still, the urgency and immediacy of gospel opened a door to the potency of a live performance.

“I have never been religious, but I could never deny the power of the music on the audience, the way it felt so much like a performance and the energy that it built within the room.

“I was so drawn to people that were openly angry and expressive and passionate. I felt like I was so quiet, so I was drawn to others singing and playing out their pain. I had never really seen or heard that until seeking it out on my own in rock ‘n’ roll and blues. All these artists I loved, especially in the soul and R&B/rock ‘n’ roll vein, mostly grew up in the church, as well. I knew there was a tie to it. I could hear in the music the old call and response style, the attitude, the passionate execution of the songs. The more I listened and the more I got into researching the influences of my favorite artists, I was able to see how much all the styles of roots music were really tied together.”

Perhaps that’s why Hill balances the R&B authority of LaVern Baker or early Aretha Franklin with the collar-grabbing guitar rock command of the MC5. But working as an independent artist without major label help means having to get her music out the old-fashioned way – through lots and lots of road work.

“Do we always have packed rooms? No. Are we able to get into every venue/festival that we want to play? Hell, no. There are ups and downs to it, but I think if it wasn’t paying off, I wouldn’t still be touring and able to make records.

“I’m just facing it head on because that’s all I know. Plus, there is no need for me to ever act like I chose an easy way. It all boils down to the fact that I’m a black Southern woman playing rock ‘n’ roll in 2017. It’s confusing. It’s unidentifiable. It’s unfamiliar. It’s unmarketable. It’s not popular. But it’s me and I’m making a living at it.”

Nikki Hill performs at 4:30 p.m. as part of Well Crafted – Brews + Bands at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Rd. in Harrodsburg. Admission: $25. Gates open at 11 a.m. Call 859-734-5411 or go to shakervillageky.org/well-crafted.

critic’s pick: rhiannon giddens, ‘freedom highway’ and ‘factory girl’

On “Birmingham Sunday,” one the many highlights from “Freedom Highway,” the second solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, cultures and generations beautifully collide.
The Richard Farina folk tale, first cut by his sister-in-law Joan Baez in 1964, details the bombing of a Baptist church by the Ku Klux Klan and has become widely recognized as an anthem of the civil rights era. Giddens’ take is equally solemn, grounded in steadfast fervency but illuminated by the spotless tonality of her singing and the swelling yet subtle support of a choir. At first, it hits you like a vintage Dylan song, but one done by Sandy Denny during her late ‘60s tenure with Fairport Convention. The performance doesn’t overstate the song’s potency. Instead, it relishes in control and unwavering confidence.

“Freedom Highway” beams regularly with such brilliance. Unlike Giddens’ remarkable 2015 solo debut, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” which stressed stylistic dexterity by downplaying her own material, “Freedom Highway” is more centralized and sports eight original tunes that blend in so naturally with Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the Pops Staples-penned title tune (a true Civil Rights document) that it is often difficult to tell who wrote what.

That’s mostly because of the astonishingly pure voice Giddens remains in possession of. On “Hey Bebe,” co-written with Americana journeyman Dirk Powell (who also co-produced “Freedom Highway” with Giddens), the singing glides along with the joyous but decidedly rootsy jazz/blues support of trumpeter Alphonso Horne. This is “Freedom Highway” at its merriest. But at the other extreme is the original “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a declaration of identity by a young mother and slave sung not with bluesy remorse but with subdued defiance and a touch of grace.

It’s easy to focus exclusively on the refreshingly unforced cast of Giddens’ voice, so much so that hearing “Following the North Star” revert back to the instrumental string fortitude that fueled her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a bonus. With the singer on minstrel banjo, the tune nicely compliments this sublime sophomore work from one of the country’s most gifted roots conscious ambassadors.

As a footnote. “Freedom Highway” coincides with the first CD issue of “Factory Girl,” a five song EP initially released digitally and on vinyl in late 2015. Culled from the same T Bone Burnett-produced sessions that yielded “Tomorrow is My Turn,” it similarly champions the astonishing vocal diversity that distinguished that album.

An Appalachian/Celtic spirit runs through these songs. “Mouth Music” embraces the celebratory side with Gaelic vocal acrobatics that morph into beat box worthy grooves. But the title tune is simply devastating. It’s a different kind of slavery saga, rich in Irish elegance but still saddled with unmovable oppression. Not surprisingly, Giddens sings it with a beauty as deep and pure as the song is relentlessly dire.

the music of bond… james bond

hilary kole. photo by bill westmoreland.

Hilary Kole is hardly a Bond Girl is any conventional sense. But the toast of Manhattan’s most prestigious concert venues (among them, Carnegie Hall, by way of performances with the New York Philharmonic) and cabaret rooms (the famed Rainbow Room, which she began playing at age 21) unquestionably has a fondness for James Bond films. Her preferences, though, run to the music that has been as vital to the evolution of the long running spy movie series as the villainous plot twists, global locales, and, yes, glamorous women.

“You have all kinds of people from all different periods that have kind of bonded through Bond,” said Kole, who will celebrate New Year’s Eve by performing “Casino Royale: The Music of James Bond” with the Lexington Philharmonic. “I feel like its music for everybody.”

Philharmonic conductor and music director Scott Terrell concurs, citing not just the vocal compositions that have served as theme songs to Bond movies for over 50 years but the instrumental scores, especially those composed for the Sean Connery-era films from the 1960s by John Barry, as key to the continued success of the series and to Bond’s overall charisma.

“Great film music really sells us the character,” Terrell said. “But the music becomes yet another character on the screen, even though it’s not a spoken character. I don’t think the success of James Bond is as good without the music – at all, just as ‘Star Wars’ isn’t as good without John Williams. I’m sorry, it just isn’t going to work.

“But what’s interesting, particularly with ‘Goldfinger’ (the vanguard 1964 Bond movie, much of which is set in Kentucky) is how the music is really evocative of this particular era of the Bond movie. That’s Shirley Bassey (the singer who performed the theme, as well as those from two other Bond movies in the ‘70s) at her best. It draws a very strong image of the picture.”

The “Casino Royale” program is striking because is represents a parade of hits by predominantly female vocalists whose styles and temperaments reflect the many eras in which the Bond movies were made. Aside from Bassey, those singers include Nancy Sinatra, Carly Simon, Sheena Easton, Rita Coolidge, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner and, as recently as 2012’s “Skyfall,” Adele.

“You can’t really compare the originals,” Kole said, “My goodness, there are so many singers that have recorded these songs. So I don’t try to do that. I try to just be true to the song.  It’s always a fun thing for me to see how far I can push things, starting off with one tradition, going into rock ‘n’ roll and then the music of someone like Adele.”

Even though Kole plans on putting her own interpretative spin on the music, Terrell said the stylistic breadth of the songs, from the soft spoken pop of Marvin Hamlisch’s “Nobody Does it Better” (sung by Simon for 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me”) to the more brazen rock and soul of the U2 penned title tune to “Goldeneye” (recorded for the film by Turner) calls for a vocalist with an equally dynamic range.

“You need somebody like Hilary to tackle the variety and range of this music,” he said. “It’s a heavy lift, which she does really well. Plus, she is a very engaging personality both on an off the stage.

For Kole, the appeal of the Bond movies stems back to her childhood, although she confessed her father, Broadway actor and singer Robert Kole, was the bigger fan.

“My dad was a James Bond addict. I remember my parents watching the films and then getting to see them on television myself when I was very young. When I started researching for this show, I took another look at a lot of the films and was thinking, ‘Wow, they let me watch this?’”

Terrell also considers himself part of the Bond films’ enduring, cross-generational audience.

“I think Bond still has the same allure,” he said. “That’s ultimately it. It hasn’t lost its interest for any generation.

“Hey, I’m not going to lie. Whenever the next James Bond movie comes out, I will likely be there within the first week.”

Casino Royale: The Music of James Bond featuring the Lexington Philharmonic and Hilary Kole will be performed 7:30 p.m. Dec. 31 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. The concert is sold out.

critic’s pick: kacey musgraves, ‘a very kacey christmas’

The inherent sweetness of Kacey Musgraves’ new holiday album “A Very Kacey Christmas” is revealed early on. During “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” the country music stylist transforms a nearly 60 year old pop relic into a spry country waltz with a hint of accordion providing a bordertown kick. The original version, of course, was popularized by Alvin and the Chipmunks and came loaded with kitsch. But Musgraves sings the song straight, embracing its childlike wonder and unavoidable innocence while discarding its campy extremes.

That, in a nutshell, is what “A Very Kacey Christmas” is all about and why it stands as one of the year’s more appealing new holiday recordings. Musgraves avoids carols and focuses strongly on the pop side of the season. But she also avoids the excess sentimentalism that country artists ladle onto Christmas music by the pickup truckload. Credit that to the mix of traditionalism, roots-consciousness and cunning that has made her one of the more refreshing young voices out of Nashville.

Four original tunes are served up on this holiday platter, the most immediately amusing being “A Willie Nice Christmas,” a clever collaboration with – who else? – Willie Nelson. The tune is played against a ukulele rhythm, creating a sense of tropical escape anchored by the promise to, with Willie’s help, “leave some special cookies for Santa.” Use your imagination.

That is about as far as adult innuendo extends on “A Very Kacey Christmas.” “Ribbons and Bows” is all hand-clapping, Ronettes-style girl group pop – a total vacation from anything Nashville oriented. On the flip side is “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” a waltz of lighter, more fanciful but also more purposely bittersweet design. Spliced emotively between the two is “Present Without a Bow,” a romantic encounter that falls between vintage country and soul with Leon Bridges serves as a suave ambassador of the latter.

The standards get an appealing makeover, too. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sparkles with colors of prairie-flavored pedal steel, percussive ‘60s orchestration and Musgraves’ wide eyed singing while “Feliz Navidad” surrenders to full Tex Mex treatment, joyous and gorgeously rhythmic.

Color me crazy, but the sentiments of “A Very Kacey Christmas” crystallize best during “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Musgraves’ Nashville-meets-Dr. Seuss treatment of the 1953 novelty hit barrels along like a cartoon parade enriched by a sense of glee as genuine as it is unassuming. In keeping with the record’s mission of capturing and/or recreating a sense of secular childhood joy (Willie’s “special cookies,” notwithstanding), the performance nicely balances sentiments nostalgic and contemporary. And after the kind of year 2016 has turned out to be, who really wouldn’t want “to see my hippo hero standing there” on Christmas morning? I don’t know about you, but that’s the holiday gathering I want to be invited to.

critic’s pick: rolling stones, ‘blue & lonesome’

Sometimes you have to disconnect from your past in order to fully explore it. That’s what the Rolling Stones have done with “Blue & Lonesome,” its first studio album in 11 years. Instead of furthering its own storied history, the vanguard rock band looks back to the DNA of what made the blood flow through their songs in the first place. It’s the source material that co-founding Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts (all in their 70s) and guitarist of 40-plus years Ron Wood (69) reach for on the album. Specifically, it’s the blues – music of simple compositional design steeped in a sense of soul so distinct and pervasive that anyone attempting such a style that is not fully versed in its emotional depth will simply come off as a pretender.

On “Blue & Lonesome,” the Stones are no pretenders.

Recorded in a period of three days with no overdubs and only modest auxiliary help (bassist Daryl Jones and pianist Chuck Leavell are the key contributors), this collection of 11 blues nuggets penned or popularized by Magic Sam, Little Walter, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and the like possess a spark that only comes from a band playing live. The Stones have almost never sounded like this on record – certainly not for the entirety of an album. There is no studio gloss, although the band never sounds scrappy. There is rawness, but the music still seems robust and complete. Above all, there is an alertness. You hear it in the ensemble gusto of Eddie Taylor’s “Ride ‘Em On Down,” a blast of Chicago blues swagger that blows in, blows up and blows away in under three minutes. But it’s as just as evident in the heavy vocal wail Jagger unleashes at the onset of the 1967 Magic Sam gem “All of Your Love” that slows the tempo, but not the Stones’ heavy blues sway. On the flip side, Willie Dixon’s “Just Like I Treat You” bounces around with pure juke joint glee, with the guitars of Richards and Wood rattling the music’s rhythmic cage. Throughout, though, it is drummer Watts that pilots these roots celebrations with a pulse and deep pocket groove that gives “Blue & Lonesome” much of its drive and emotive authenticity.

More than anything else, though, “Blue & Lonesome” is the sound of a band emancipated. Freed from the sense of commercial and critical expectation that comes with such a vast and chronicled history, the Stones honor immediacy on this almost impromptu blues soiree.

Who knows if we will ever hear another album of new Jagger/Richards songs, especially one that can hold its own with the Stones’ mighty legacy. If one doesn’t surface, take comfort in the fact that “Blue & Lonesome” will serve as one grand wrap party.

in performance: fastball

Fastball, from left: Joey Shuffield, Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo.

Fastball, from left: Joey Shuffield, Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo.

Yesterday’s storms may have short circuited the live music schedule for the second and final night of the Christ the King Oktoberfest. But with a delay of only 40 minutes, clearing skies and temps that shed the previous evening’s sauna like conditions for a touch of autumn cool, Fastball got to work with an hour long set of efficient, good natured power pop.
With its founding ‘90s lineup still intact – guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Tony Scalzo, guitarist/vocalist Miles Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield along with an auxiliary bassist – the band didn’t re-write the book on pop innovation or even stretch the limits of their material past efficient, single-length tunes (save for the occasional but brief guitar jam).  As a result, the material presented during the hour long performance, as was the case with the previous evening’s headlining Oktoberfest show by fellow ‘90s-bred pop-rockers Gin Blossoms, didn’t vary all that much. Fastball’s favored a little more by way of dynamics – the luxury of having two lead singers, the guitar riffs that percolated during the instrumental “Tanzania” and even the rhumba-esque sway of the band’s signature hit “The Way.” Mostly, though, the repertoire set up chances to play spot-the-influence within its conventional but appealing designs of vintage pop. Cases in point: the Beatle-esque harmonies behind the hit “Fire Escape,” the bright melodic terrain of “Sooner or Later” and the ska-like groove underneath “Loves Comes in Waves.”
Last night was also Zuniga’s 50th birthday. Even though the rains from earlier in the evening whittled the crowd down to roughly a third the size of what turned out for Gin Blossoms, those on hand serenaded the guitarist with the expected “Happy Birthday” and seemed more than up for tagging along with Fastball’s smart and enthusiastically delivered pop parade.

critic’s pick 316: various artists, ‘god don’t ever change – the songs of blind willie johnson

god don't ever changeFew artists lived the blues with a severity that equaled their performance drive as Blind Willie Johnson. Born poor, supposedly blinded by his stepmother after having lye thrown in his face and dead by age 48, Johnson led an existence even Southern sharecroppers that cultivated blues and gospel music over the last century would shutter from. But he sang the music with rigid conviction, underscoring his ragged tenor (and occasional bass) singing with slide guitar that provided wiry counterpoint to his immovable faith.

In the extensive, Grammy-worthy liner notes to the new Johnson tribute album God Don’t Ever Change, producer Jeffrey Gaskill terms the lost blues giant’s music as “imperishable,” a quality brought often eerily to life by an all-star roster that includes Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tedechi-Trucks, among others.

Unsurprisingly, the Waits tunes – The Soul of a Man and John the Revelator – alone make the album a worthwhile purchase. The lean, earnest might of both songs are carried by the singer’s familiar doomsday chant and the thundering percussion of drummer/son Casey Waits.

Williams, a versed blues stylist long before her sublime original music garnered attention, travels similar and seemingly murky paths during It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine and God Don’t Ever Change’s title tune, the latter sporting a powerfully stark intro that Williams sings alone before her band’s groove oozes in like a bayou river.

Similarly, the husband-and-wife crew of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, give their orchestra-sized band the day off and tackle Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning as a bare bones gospel piece with Trucks’ potent but unforced slide guitar colors leading the charge. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time (a retitled Motherless Children) is a slice of sweet, churchy solace while Luther Dickinson’s version of Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band is a cheery requiem full of rustic, percussive Southern soul.

Now for the surprise. Cowboy Junkies awaken from Americana purgatory to pull a rabbit of the hat with Jesus Is Coming Soon. Singer Margo Timmons sounds positively possessed as she chants verses about a land’s desperate quest for faith amid the decimation of Spanish Flu alongside a sample of Johnson singing the chorus. It’s a wild, fuzzed out spiritual nightmare and the last thing you would expect from the usually sleepy sounding Junkies.

Conversely, Maria McKee’s Let Your Light Shine on Me does just that. Amid the darker corners of God Don’t Ever Change, the singer serves up gospel testimony that is effortlessly bright and soulful. It’s more than call to wake the spirits. It’s a summons for Johnson to take his forgotten place in the pantheon of blues righteousness.

critic’s pick 312: lucinda Williams, ‘the ghosts of highway 20’

LW_Ghosts_Cvr_hi-758x758“Baby, you’re one piece of work,” sings Lucinda Williams during one of the arguably lighter moments of The Ghosts of Highway 20. The tune this confession seeps out of, Can’t Close the Door on Love, is aural scar tissue – a rumination sung with such slurred, sagging and exhaustive reflection that you almost miss the hope and trust waiting at its core. Williams is a champion of these battle worn laments. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is – bliss, breakup or death. Williams writes and sings like she has been through the wringer and then some. But the true beauty is how she is always left standing.

The Ghosts of Highway 20 is Williams’ second double-disc opus in only 16 months – a remarkable feat given her previous reputation for leaving long layovers between albums. In many ways, it is a companion piece to its predecessor, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Both are sparsely arranged, swirl around the guitar exchanges of Greg Leisz and jazz/Americana journeyman Bill Frisell and embrace their vivid emotions with little concern for convention. The songs are often lengthy – mostly four to six minutes with each disc ending, respectively, with nine and 12 minute epics. More than that, they are unhurried. There are a few electric outbursts, but The Ghosts of Highway 20 plays out largely as a boozy séance with streams of contemplation and unrest colored by an ambience that is, indeed, rather ghostly.

Death Came, for instance, rolls along like the river that serves as imagery for a life Williams almost seductively laments for while Bitter Memory jangles along with a honky tonk drive that makes the tune sound like an invited hangover. There is also a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Factory that is slowed from a blue collar anthem into a ragged but still affirmative family dirge.

The mammoth tunes, though, are quite extraordinary. Louisiana Story parallels two childhood remembrances – one of open family warmth, the other ruled by stricter laws of the Bible and, eventually, fear. Both are sung in succession with no variance whatsoever in Williams’ world weary singing.

The longer Faith & Grace is a combustible revival that uses its main chorus (“Faith and grace will help me run this race”) along with the title of a thematically similar 2001 Williams tune, Get Right with God, as mantras over fragments and washes of guitar melodies from Frisell that add their own level of righteousness.

Sometimes they’re ghosts. In other instances, the flesh and blood of the here and now do the talking. Williams channels them all into another beguiling séance of an album that takes the spirit even closer to the bone.

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