Rawer This Time Around

* * * LUCINDA WILLIAMS "Essence" Lost Highway

It's been almost three years since the critically beloved singer-songwriter put out her Grammy-winning, profile-raising "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." But that's actually a fast turnaround for an artist who's releasing only her sixth album in 22 years.

Where the mainstream roots-rock sound of "Car Wheels" was exuberant and practically slick, the spare yet elegant "Essence" (in stores Tuesday) is rawer and more subdued. Williams balances her perfectionist's precision with an agreeably ragtag feeling, as if she just happened to be hanging out and playing her folky blues-rock with the likes of fellow producer Charlie Sexton, drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Bo Ramsey and other fine musicians.

Williams' austere phrasing creates lovely tension against her passionate, visceral lyrics. Occasionally a metaphor goes overboard, such as the love-is-like-heroin (or is that heroin-is-like-love?) title tune. But her songs mostly suggest situations--the aftermath of a breakup, a neglected friendship, returning to a childhood home--that are loaded with complex, contradictory reflections.

Her elastic, slightly raspy soprano buttonholes each mood, from the mournful, Neil Young-like "Out of Touch" to the sassy, blues-rocking brushoff "Are You Down?" But when Williams' utterly naked voice bleeds all over such ballads as "Bus to Baton Rouge," you'd need the hardest of hearts to keep the tears from your eyes.

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