Recommended diversions

Lucinda Williams, West

If you don’t already know her, go back to the beginning and catch up, because you’ve missed out on one of the premier singer-songwriters of the past 20 years, that rare artist who sings ‘em as well as she writes ‘em — and vice versa.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is her best, a perfect album with an attention to detail so indelible, literature fans will love it, and music so perfectly matched to her big emotions, Loretta Lynn fans will love it. If you’re a literature fan who also loves Loretta, well, here is your new hero, and best of luck getting her songs out of your head. I wish her new album focused more on the small, precise details that made her earlier albums so terrific, and at times she does — songs about her recently deceased mother hit the mark. But her pissed-at-men songs she keeps too damn general, relying on her growling and yowling to put them across, not to mention the fierce playing of her crackerjack band. And then there’s “What If,” an embarrassing, cringe-worthy clunker that somebody who loves her should have talked her into saving for...another occasion (sample lyric: “What if cats walked on water/And birds had bank accounts?”). Otherwise, this is a very fine album from the closest thing fringe country-rock music has for a genius these days. May she soon get back to telling stories.

March Madness

Even for marginal sports fans, this is perhaps the best time of year, with baseball season and the Masters golf tournament looming around the corner and the NCAA college basketball tournament now upon us. As long as I live, I will count NC State’s dramatic run to the championship in 1983 as one of my favorite memories. I had been a student at NCSU from 80-82, and was on campus with some old friends the night they won the championship game against highly favored Houston, who had future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in their starting five. It was a genuine David and Goliath situation, and when Lorenzo Charles stuffed in an errant Derrick Whittenberg desperation jumper with time running out, the giant was felled. Maybe there is another David out there this year.

‘Half Nelson’

An independent movie that will hopefully gain a wider audience (now available on DVD) as a result of Ryan Gosling’s well-deserved Academy Award nomination, this movie is both powerful and restrained, and ultimately deeply affecting. Gosling plays a crack addict teacher barely managing to hold his life together when he is caught in the bathroom after school by one of his 13-year-old students, played by Shareeka Epps. The movie is essentially about the friendship that develops between them, but it is about so much more than that. In the wrong hands, this could have turned into the worst kind of melodramatic pap. Instead, first-time director Ryan Fleck negotiates some pretty daring material with grace and gratifying subtlety. I can’t think of a better film I saw from last year.

— By Chris Cox

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