Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

JULY 27, 1998: 

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Left Of Cool (Warner Bros.)

Musicians’ musicians often respond to an inherent need to make a noise which is not necessarily perceived by the general public as being “general-public”-friendly. Musical thoroughbreds of this stripe can’t be expected to settle for hackneyed top-40 formulae, nor (depressingly) can the typical non-musician be counted on to actually hear the musician’s message under such circumstances.

Whatever. I mean, at this juncture, I could effortlessly go off on an anti-plebeian diatribe, leaving many of you frothing and rocking and writhing and writing letters to the Flyer. Instead, I will, from this point on, almost exclusively address those of you who actually give a flying Fleck’s-ass about the issue at hand.

The issue at hand: a new Flecktones album – lock up the musically challenged and hide the flash-in-the-pan pretty/dangerous boyz!

Seven syllables: Béla Fleck is a genius. Several more: Victor Wooten (bassist almighty) and his bro-in-rhythm Future Man (MIDI percussionist extraordinaire) are unparalleled in their mission to expand the absolute shit out of the traditional rhythm-section job description.

Tried-and-true Fleck followers from New Grass Revival days forward will immediately recognize and appreciate the graceful stylistic synthesis so exquisitely promulgated by Béla, the Flecktones, and guests (saxist Jeff Coffin, Jesus groupie/swell vocalist Amy Grant, rock star/genuine pal Dave Matthews, and “Africa samples”). Left Of Cool serves up the same jazzgrass-blended cocktail Fleck-oids far and wide have come to crave for quite some time now. Considerably more sophisticated than the wonderful and honorable David Grisman’s relatively regionalized “Dawg” music, Fleck’s music hybridizes this particular hybrid until it begs for the next stage of mutation (and boy, I can’t wait for that…).

Downside: Left Of Cool was recorded at Béla’s house via some swank digital equipment, but the end result, sonically, is just a tad … dull. Nothing against the hardware, nothing against the software – I think the guys simply need to get a grip on their technology. To reiterate: The audio doesn’t suck, it just fails to sparkle.

Steeper downside: Why is it that so many great instrumental bands succumb to the urge to frigging sing/rap? – Stephen Grimstead

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury)

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is a Southern road trip, taken in a yellow El Camino, with West Memphis, Greenville, and Lake Charles (home of the Band’s “little Bessie girl”) on the itinerary, and Howlin’ Wolf, Loretta Lynn, and ZZ Top (!) on the tape deck. Three years in the making, obsessively crafted to sound utterly spontaneous, this record finds Williams traveling up and down Southern highways (14 place names are mentioned over the album’s 13 songs, all south of Memphis and between East Texas and Macon), musing on the scenery and remembering (or gloriously failing to forget) ex-lovers.

It’s that rarest of creatures, a truly great record. Risking hyperbole, this may be the most well-sung rock-and-roll record in 30 years, right up there with Every Picture Tells A Story, Astral Weeks, and Blonde On Blonde. And there’s not a show-off moment on the whole damn thing. She drawls out her lines, coos, sighs, or sings flat, pretty and plain – whatever is needed to nail in place a group of songs almost as perfect as (and even more understated than) the indelibly unkempt instrument putting them across. There’s nothing here that announces itself like “Passionate Kisses” from her other classic, 1988’s Lucinda Williams, but this more unassuming collection congeals in a way that the earlier record doesn’t.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road begins with what may be the first country rock song about masturbation (let’s see Mary Chapin-Carpenter have a hit with this one), “Right in Time,” and these great opening lines: “Not a day goes by I don’t think about you/You left your mark on me/It’s permanent … a tattoo.” Then there are two songs of Southern memory. On the title track, images of “cotton fields stretching for miles and miles” and “broken down shacks, engine parts” bring back memories of another road trip, a perfectly evoked, but never spelled-out, childhood tale of family separation. Then “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” finds her reconstructing the scene in a Rosedale, Mississippi, juke joint with some guy named Johnson playing in the corner.

But she still can’t get that guy out of her head, and in the very same song remembers a day in Lake Charles when he threatened to jump off the bridge and take her with him. And from there the landscape being explored changes from gravel roads (where true love travels, according to Percy Sledge) to the contours of a broken heart. There’s a moment on just about every song that can make your knees buckle if you’re paying attention. My favorites include the way her voice softens on the soul-deep “Still I Long for Your Kiss” when she sings “I know it’s over … cause you told me so,” and how the declaration of principles on “I Lost It” (“I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it”) becomes a plea for connection. – Chris Herrington

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