Like Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A., Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was that rare album that perfectly summed up everything an artist stood for while crafting songs loaded with hook after hook. And like Springsteen after Born, it left Williams nowhere to go but sideways. Since Wheels' 1998 release, Williams has gone quiet (Essence), entrenched herself in the blues (World Without Tears), and plunged into miserablism (West), creating sustained moods that wore out their welcomes over the length of an album.
That's isn't a problem for Little Honey, a winningly eclectic set that finds Williams thinking about pleasing the crowd again while seemingly playing whatever fits her mood. One of several songs to feature sweet harmonies from Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, the album-opening "Real Love" practically challenges listeners not to turn up the volume. It's all catchy rock grooves and joyous explosion, anchored around the guitar of Williams regular Doug Pettibone. The honky-tonk-friendly "Circles And X's," written in 1985, follows, and from there, the album rolls through ballad portraiture ("Little Rock Star"), a delicate second-chance lament ("If Wishes Were Horses"), and an AC/DC cover. Why? Why not? Williams sounds like she's enjoying herself, never more so than on the losers-in-love Elvis Costello duet "Jailhouse Tears," and the mood becomes infectious. Williams spent much of this decade proving she can branch out, but here she's staged something even more impressive: a pleasing homecoming.