Title: Passionate Kisses
Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: Lucinda Williams
A decade before Lilith Fair and "Sunny Came Home," Lucinda Williams was making blues-tinged country folk-rock (whatever) female empowerment music and no-one even noticed. It would be five years before Mary Chapin-Carpenter's cover of "Passionate Kisses" would earn Williams a much-deserved Grammy for Best Country Song and another five before she would find her own moderate level of success with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Maybe it's because her first major release came courtesy of Rough Trade Records, a London indy known more for The Smiths and Buzzcocks, or because her album jacket featured a rather tough-looking Williams in front of a rusty....trailer?—I don't know what that thing is. But the country and western fans weren't biting.
Too bad for them because Williams's brand of country is the real deal, cut from the same cloth as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. It's hard to quantify why I like Williams's version of "Passionate Kisses" so much more than Carpenter's—they're almost identical, save for the piano intro that prefaces the latter version. But I think it comes down to vocal tone quality and phrasing. Carpenter is a fine singer but her voice lacks the natural character of Williams's. Listen to the crack on the word "ask" in the first line or the way she bends the note on the first word ("food") of the very next line. Those artifacts comprise the rough edges that make Lucinda Williams convincing. But it's the way she sings the pre-chorus (my favorite part of the song) that really draws me in. There's something special about how she phrases the repeated line shouldn't I have this? that projects a sense of longing absent from Carpenter's record. (I chalk it up to a more skillful handling of the syncopation.) That the original song is pitched a full step higher than its more successful cousin probably adds a bit of brightness, but Williams herself performs the song live in Carpenter's key of choice (D for those who are curious) and the results are similar.
Finally, I like the fact that the song clocks in at a lean 2:35 (almost a full minute less than Carpenter's), which signifies to me that Williams trusts the song on its own terms without the bells and whistles present in so much of modern country.