Posts Tagged ‘Kelly Willis’

Album Review: ‘Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band’

April 27, 2017

 

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

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The tagline for Bruce Robison’s first solo in eight years reads, “recorded on analog tape with no digital shenanigans.” He goes on to say, “I will tell you one thing about this project…I wanted to leave in just enough mistakes so it sound live and, well, mission accomplished.”

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band came about as a result of the time he spent working on The Last Waltz, a multi-media website that acts as a “virtual social house” of music, videos, and interviews with the cream of the crop of today’s songwriters and musicians. As a result, Robison was inspired to form his own band to record a nine-track album featuring his own interpretation of originals, co-writes and covers.

Our first taste of the project, Joe Dickens’ “Rock and Roll Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man,” about a guy refusing to cave into society’s pressures for him to suppress his rebel spirit, is an excellent infectious mid-tempo number drenched in fiddle.

Another preview track, which Robison wrote solo, is the brilliant ballad “Sweet Dreams.” The song centers around the age old tale of a small-town boy who never got out into the world, despite watching all the girls he dated take off and fly. The theme may be well worn but it never sounded sweeter than in Robison’s hands, accented with lovely heapings of mandolin and steel guitar. He also solely composed the slow-burning “Long Shore,” which rests on the nakedness of his gravely vocal.  “Long Time Comin,’” a Robison co-write with Micky Braun, is a gorgeous folk-leaning ballad with an ear-catching lyric.

Braun co-wrote “Paid My Dues,” an ironic up-tempo about the dark side of making it in the music business, with the always fantastic Jason Eady. The song, which Robison presents as a duet with Jack Ingram, has a wit and infectious melody that drew me right in. If this truly is the dark side, then they’re having way too much binging on cocaine in a cheap motel room.

My favorite track on the album is Robison’s take on Christy Hays’ “Lake of Fire,” a stunning traditionally accented ballad. “The Years,” by Damon Bramblett, is a sweet and endearing waltz concerning the trajectory of love, beautifully framed with gentle percussion mixed with fiddle and steel. Michael Heeney and John Moffat’s “Still Doing Time (In a Honky Tonk Prison)” is a classic country weeper and a brilliant one at that.

The centerpiece of the album is its most famous song, Pete Townshend’s “Squeezebox,” which Robison considers “a great country song by some English dudes.” Robison’s version is great, if cluttered, and has a nice assist from his wife Kelly Willis.

As a whole, Bruce Robison and the Back Porch Band is a welcomed surprise and a nice follow-up to the two excellent duets records he did with Willis in the past few years. I wasn’t expecting so much slower material, but there truly isn’t a sour track in the bunch. Robison’s pen is as sharp as his keen sense of song. His liner notes may begin, “You’re not going to listen to this! It’s a goddamn record!” but to heed his premonition is to miss out on one of the year’s most uniquely satisfying offerings.

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Album Review: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis: ‘Our Year’

May 27, 2014

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

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Our Year

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Over the Christmas holiday last year, a friend asked how Texas country was different from Nashville country. I had to stop for a moment and finally came up with an answer – to me Texas country often has more of a back to basics sound, more roots based than the commercial sheen coming out of Music City.

So it always surprises me when Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis record their collaborative projects there, not Austin, where they live, and spend most of their time. Like last year’s Cheater’s GameOur Year maintains the Texas sound they’ve come to hone, down to the minimalist production and close harmonies.

Instead of a direct sequel, Our Year plays like a companion piece to Cheater’s Game – far shorter in length and less commercial in scope. The absence of production drives the record, giving the ten tracks a demo-like feel that leaves them sounding somewhat unfinished, but no less enjoyable or musically appealing.

No more is this apparent than on their cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley PTA,” oft-covered in their live shows and the track that spearheaded this album. It opens with a lone acoustic guitar and doesn’t get much more rocklin’, save some dobro riffs, as it goes along. Willis’ strong vocal drives the song and works well to tell the story.

Robison and Willis bring a bluegrass flair to The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and while they don’t add anything new to Vern Gosdin and Emmylou Harris’ “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On,” their version works just as well. A cover of T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” is pure honky-tonk bliss and a stunning showcase for Willis vocally.

Like Cheater’s Game, Our Year isn’t all country covers. The pair keeps it in the family on “Departing Lousania,” a mandolin driven ballad written by Robison’s youngest sister Robyn Ludwick. Robison appropriately takes the lead, sticking in his wheelhouse of journey songs, and does a bang-up job of bringing the story to life.

The harmonica is out in full force on delightful rocker “Motor City Man,” penned by late Austin singer/songwriter Walter Hyatt. The track breathes some much-needed attitude into the album and gives Willis a chance to deliver a strong and confident vocal.

The title track, a Zombies song written by Chris White, is a staple of their annual Christmas show and features a lovely banjo-driven arrangement and the pair’s signature harmonies.

Robison contributed two of the strongest compositions found on Our Year. “Carousel,” is a glorious steel-front waltz co-written with Darden Smith that concerns the end of a relationship, where a couple has to “step off of the carousel and say goodbye.” “Anywhere But Here” is an ode to youthful innocence and a perfectly articulated number about the restlessness of growing up.

“Lonely For You” is a Willis original, co-written with Paul Kennerley. Willis may be one of the best honky-tonk balladeers recording music today, but she also shines on uptempo material like this, about a woman who’s still holding on to a relationship that’s already come to an end.

Often when an iconic collaborative pairing (the Trio, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) tries to record a follow-up record the sessions are either marred with drama or the project takes years to see the light of day. It’s even harder, just ask Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, to follow-up an iconic work with something even half as good as the original.

With Our Year, Robison and Willis have succeeded splendidly on both fronts with an album tighter and even more fully realized than Cheater’s Game. They could’ve done without the Statler Brothers or Gosdin/Harris covers and thrown in two more Robison originals, but there’s no other way this project could be more perfect. Our Year is easily yet another of 2014’s spectacular releases.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game”

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

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Cheater’s Game

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If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music.