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Lucinda Williams 

World Without Tears (Lost Highway)

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If Lucinda Williams is such a genius, then how come she keeps making the same album? Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her 1998 breakthrough after years of obscurity, defined and perfected her earthy songwriting, filled with lust, longing, and exacting character detail. Its acclaim deserved, the record also painted her into a corner. No matter how many superlatives are thrown her way, she's had trouble surprising us since then.

Essence, the 2001 follow-up to Car Wheels, suffered by comparison, and while Williams's newest, World Without Tears, is a step up, again we get the blues-drenched hard-luck cases. She keeps crafting these laments intelligently, but too much of World is unrelenting and predictable.

When Williams does branch out from Car Wheels, the results are questionable. "Atonement" might have been a hoot, if Tom Waits had turned its religious fanaticism into a carnival grotesque. But in Lucinda's hands, it's just a bluesy swamp, self-consciously serious and overwrought. Later, "American Dream" is a so-so commentary on ruined lives. The music is moody enough, but the observations are standard Mellencamp-fleeces-Springsteen at its most obvious. As is, it's all too much of a drag.

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