These discs come from artists once associated with the "alt-country" movement, though they've moved much closer to the rock 'n' roll genre over time and further away from the twang (even if the latter is always apparent in Ms. Williams' idiosyncratic voice ... which some meanies have compared to Olive Oyl, even if one man's Olive Oyl is another's aural wet dream). Not that they don't still love those country roots; Charlie Louvin of the legendary Louvin Brothers guests on Williams' album and is currently on tour with the Old 97's, including this week's Detroit stop.
That band's Blame It on Gravity is a vast improvement over 2004's disappointing Drag It Up and way more listenable. It isn't as beautifully hook-laden as 2001's Satellite Rides, one of that year's best albums, which was as close to early Elvis Costello & the Attractions as filtered through various strands of British new wave than any modern band from Texas should have the right to sound. But "She Loves the Sunset" resembles a very good Jonathan Richman outtake; "This Beautiful Thing" is reminiscent of the garage rock classic "Little Black Egg," melodically speaking; "The Fool" kicks off with Who-like power; "Dance With Me" is the kind of Tex-Mex ditty that helped make the band famous; "The Easy Way" borrows a rock hook from Elvis C's "You Belong to Me." Still, as fine as this album sounds, one can't help feeling that their last two have featured leftovers from frontman-leader Rhett Miller's two excellent solo albums on which he was allowed to really let his pure-pop freak flag fly.
Little Honey, meanwhile, isn't as immediately striking and intoxicating as 2007's West, one of that year's best albums. Of course, that disc dealt with the death of Williams' mother and the breakup of yet another bad love affair, while this one was written and recorded during a period when the artist was newly in love. She's soon to marry her manager, Tom Overby; hence, titles here like "Plan to Marry." And intended or not, she borrows two titles — namely the opening "Real Love" and "Well, Well, Well" — from one Mr. John Lennon. So maybe when it comes to Williams, this fan prefers the dark over the positive. Which isn't to say that she's not still as feisty as ever. "Honey Bee" is practically punk rock, and she ends the album with an AC/DC cover. "Little Rock Star" — a gorgeous, Spector-esque number that features background vocals from Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet, the latter helped arrange the cut — is a cautionary word to excessive youngsters like Amy Winehouse and Ryan Adams from somebody who's already lived through a dangerous life.
There are a few bluesy moments and some of those drone-y passages that she's known for (perhaps a few too many of those, since there are three in a row before the AC/DC thing). The closest she gets to real country, in fact, is a duet with Elvis Costello (there's that name again!) on the stunning "Jailhouse Tears," which is a conversation between two former lovers following what must've been a horrible relationship. (There's an irony, by the way — intended or not — that the album shares a title with a song that was recorded by both X and the Blasters and which was co-written by Dave Alvin, with whom Williams once had a fairly volatile relationship.) Country-tinged or not, though, George Jones never sang a lyric like "Look at me, I'm clean now," only to be followed by Tammy Wynette snarling: "You're so full of shit." Terrific stuff.
The Old 97's play Saturday, Oct. 11, at St. Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress Ave, Detroit; 313-961-MELT.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].