Lucinda Williams Gets Happy

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa



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“I'd start out in the afternoon with the band, getting sounds, trying different guitars, amps, snare drums, cymbals. We had so much stuff out there — I counted 58 guitars one day, and when Doug walked in with a bunch more I stopped counting. And then Chet's guitars and mine, my amps, Doug's amps, all the drum stuff. We had two kits set up: the main kit and a cocktail kit. So we'd just bang around for a couple hours, not work on it, really.

“Early in the evening, Lu and Tom would come in and fart around for half-an-hour, and then bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. Most of them are no more than six takes, and in most cases, pretty reliably, take four or take five was the keeper, always going for her vocal first. A lot of them are complete takes; some had an insert from another take, no more than an edit or two. And most of the vocals are not comped at all.

“Lu has an incredible voice,” he continues. “It looked like a press conference in there — I'd start out with four mics on her and whittle it down to one. I have a Brauner Valvet, and that has been her main vocal mic since West. But I also put up two [Neumann] 47s and an [AKG] C-12. The Brauner won out on a few songs, but on most of them the 47 worked best this time — a 47 into a [Neve] 1081 with an LA-2A. I had the Brauner going through a [Focusrite] Red 7 [preamp], which was really like a finished vocal combo — gets you all the way there.”

Those mics captured some of Williams' most compelling performances ever, including the epic, nearly nine-minute ballad “Rarity.” “She got that one in one take,” Overby recalls. “At the end of it, she was in the booth and she started to cry. She said — and this is from a big perfectionist — ‘I can't do any better than that.’” Another jaw-dropper is the album closer “Plan to Marry,” a powerful affirmation of the redemptive power of a lasting relationship during a time “When leaders can't be trusted/Our heroes have let us down/And innocence lies rusted/And frozen beneath the ground.” She laid down the stark vocal-and-acoustic performance for the band to work from — “but when we listened back to it,” says Overby, “everyone said, ‘Let's not touch this.’”

The album also boasts inspired performances from several handpicked guest vocalists: Elvis Costello gets right in character as a hopeless loser on the delightfully acerbic “Jailhouse Tears”; and the great Charlie Louvin enhances the down-home authenticity of “Well Well Well,” as does Jim Lauderdale, who also lends his voice to the soulful chorale of “Jailhouse Tears”; while Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs appear on three of the album's linchpin songs: “Real Love,” “Little Rock Star” and “Rarity.”

“We were listening back to ‘Real Love,’ and I thought of Matthew,” says Liljestrand. “I've always loved his thing with steely harmonies over rough, rocking tracks. Both Tom and Lu were kind of noncommittal at first. The next day, though, Tom came in very excited by the idea — he'd gone home and listened to [Sweet's classic album] Girlfriend, I think. A day or two later, they had listened to the ‘Sid & Sue’ record [Sweet and Hoffs' Under the Covers Vol. 1] on the way in, and Lucinda was very excited about Matthew and asked if I thought we should call Sue, as well. I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Then Jeff contacted you.”

At Greenberg's request, I called Sweet. We've been friends since 1991, when I signed him to the Zoo label and we released Girlfriend. For that one phone call I scored a “thank you” from Liljestrand in the credits.

“The first session went great,” Liljestrand says. “Both Matthew and Susanna are so nice, and Lu was blown away by their harmonies. We ended up spending the whole evening on ‘Little Rock Star’ instead of ‘Real Love.’” Soon thereafter, Sweet and Hoffs laid down harmonies on “Real Love,” and the synergy between their layered vocals (which Sweet had arranged in his home studio) and Williams' leads was by then so undeniable that they then went straight to “Rarity.”

“Lucinda was floored by how brilliant Matthew was,” says Overby. “At one point, she said, ‘Omigod, it's like working with Brian Wilson.’”

In March, when it was time to mix, Liljestrand went down the hall for the first project in Studio B following a radical renovation of the control room, which now houses another 88R snagged by Greenberg from Sony Studios in New York. Remarkably, the makeover had been completed in just three weeks; Greenberg says he can't stand to see one of his studios sitting idle.

This was unquestionably the most positive and gratifying recording experience by far for Williams, whose mere presence once struck fear in the hearts of everyone who was in the studio with her. “She got on such a roll and there were such good vibes that there are all these wonderful moments — I think that's what marks this record,” says Overby. “To me, this is her White Album or her Exile on Main Street — the best of all the styles she does, plus some new ones.”

Looking back on it, Williams reflects, “It's great when you can go in to make a record and you already know who your backing band will be, who your engineer will be, who will be producing, what studio you will be working in and, I might add, who your mastering engineer will be — Gavin Lurssen. Of course, these folks are all pros, but I can't stress enough how crucial it is to work with people I like — people I've come to love. Besides musical prowess, love and respect are the ingredients that turn good art into a great record.”

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