Album Review – The Little Willies – “For The Good Times”

The Little Willies

For The Good Times

**** 1/2

Isn’t it refreshing? The first new country album of 2012 also marks the year’s first great one. A sequel of sorts to the one-off side project from Jazz/pop vocalist Norah Jones and vocalist Richard Julian (among others), For The Good Times features a smart mix of tunes originally written and sung by the likes of Dolly Parton, Ralf Stanley, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Lefty Frizzell, and band namesake Willie Nelson.

Like their 2006 debut, For The Good Times consists mainly of cover songs but this is hardly another in the “covers album” sub-genre. Instead they leave their own mark on each recording, making it sound like their own. I’ve been really digging the retro sound the band has cultivated making For The Good Times feel like a long lost album from the 1960s and not a new project from 2012.

The record opens with their take on Stanley’s “I Worship You,” an acquired taste for country fans, like myself, who haven’t grown up listening to songs with distinct changes in tempo. The slow burning chorus, complete with the crescendoing drums and guitars, is the perfect compliment to the heavy twang from Jones and Julian, but the song truly shines when it picks up steam and becomes a rockabilly stomp. I only wish “I Worship You” didn’t keep the back-and-fourth in tempo, it feels quite awkward to me when it changes from fast to slow and the heavy twang on the chorus becomes grating as the song progresses.

While “I Worship You” may not have been a slam dunk, the other places The Little Willies experimented with sound and texture come off much better. I’m in love with Cal Martin’s “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” which features a gorgeous almost snake-like guitar riff and the magical combination of Jones and Julian, who work extremely well together when they use the contrast of their voices on different parts of a song.

Throughout the album he sounds a lot like Lyle Lovett while she comes like a gypsy woman plucked from another era. The conviction in their vocals helps to enhance the overall mood of the record and they don’t just play their parts perfectly, they sound like they’ve been making this music all their lives. I’m always amazed when a singer, such as Jones, can exist in multiple musical landscapes seemingly without transition.

I was never one to consider her as serious country vocalist but her take on Lynn’s iconic “Fist City” easily rivals the original. It’s always tricky when a vocalist tries to take on one of Lynn’s classics since you need the right amount of ferocity in your delivery to pull it off without sounding like a cheap imitation, or worse, a singer simply trying to show they have country cred. Jones aces the exam and the arrangement of drums, guitar, and piano give her the perfect backdrop to let loose and tap into the growl in her voice. This is my first favorite song of 2012 because Jones and company pull off what could’ve been an epic mess by lesser musicians.

Another such slam dunk is their smoky and bluesy take on Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” For a song with such honky-tonk beginnings it’s quite alarming to hear it given a jazzy club treatment but it works. In their attempt to honor opposed to discriminate against, they’ve given the song a new lease on life. Given that this isn’t the first time Jones has covered Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart” appeared on Come Away With Me, she knows how to handle the material quite well.

The same though can’t be said for their take on Parton’s “Jolene.” I was slightly disappointed in how they turned it into a ballad given that it was done before by Mindy Smith on Just Because I’m A Woman – The Songs of Dolly Parton in 2003. But while they failed to bring anything new to the song, there’s nothing wrong with how they interpreted it, just that it had been done before. Given how they took on “Fist City” and “Lovesick Blues” with such attack, I was hoping for more from this one.

But the slight disappointment in “Jolene” is easily forgotten on tracks like Cash’s “Wide Open Road” and Frizzell’s “If You Got The Money (I Got The Time).” Prior to this album I wasn’t familiar with “Road,” but their fast paced take on the song makes me wonder how it slipped under my radar. Julian takes on the bulk of the work here and pulls it off wonderfully. But more than his vocal, I’m really enjoying the arraingment what at first, when the guitars some screeching in on the opening chords, can sound a little loud turns out to be quite delightful. The fast-paced drum throughout may just be one of my favorite production choices on the whole project. Sonically, it doesn’t get much better this for country music in any era let alone in 2012.

“If You Got the Money” benefits from a very similar arrangement and works equally as well. The blending of both Jones and Julian’s voices here works pretty well although she does tend to overpower him. While that could’ve been purposefully done, it would’ve been just as effective to hear both vocalists on a more even playing field. But, no matter what, I’ll prefer this pair to the likes of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley any day.

Given that they’re known as The Little Willies, leaving out a homage to their namesake would make an album of theirs seem incomplete. Here they cover his “Permanently Lonely,” Scotty Wiseman’s “Remember Me” which he covered last November on his Remember Me, Vol. 1, and of course, “If You Got the Money.” The aforementioned “Money” is the lone uptempo number of the group. Both “Lonely” and “Remember Me” are gorgeous ballads showcasing the best of what Jones and Julian have to offer.

“Remember Me” is given a straightforward piano-driven arrangement not unlike Jones’s solo work and the best indicator for her jazz/pop fans that she isn’t turning completely away from the singer they love (which is a farce in and of itself – a new solo album from her is expected this summer). But no matter what the style, she pulls it off with the brilliance she’s mastered during her years in the big leagues. Plus, it isn’t jazzy at all bur rather the best in 1970s honky-tonk ballad tradition.

Along the same lines, Julian takes “Permanently Lonely” to much the same places. It’s another I hadn’t known previously and he digs deep into the lyric and pulls out a stunning emotional conviction that’s only heightened by the slow and brooding piano-led arraignment.

Another of my favorite tracks, “For The Good Times” has an arrangement that would make Charlie Rich smile. When Jones comes in on the opening line, “Don’t look so sad/I know it’s over” I instantly have a smile on my face. No matter the subject matter, there is something inherently comfortable in everything Kris Kristofferson writes and I feel like I’m being visited by a friend. I have to give Jones credit here for handling the song with tender care and pulling off another stunning achievement.

For The Good Times is the year’s first great country album because it displays a level of appreciation for the material being covered lacking in almost any covers project coming out of Nashville today. Instead of trying to make these songs fit within today’s market, the band uses a retro sound to transport the listener back to when these songs were commonplace on the radio. In addition, the combination of Julian and Jones on vocals only heightens that feel as Jones is able to tap into not only her gravel but her twang. She isn’t a jazz/pop singer doing country songs but rather a full-fledged country singer. In the era of imitation, that is nearly impossible to achieve.

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