CD Review of Translated from Love by Kelly Willis

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Translated from Love
starstarstarno starno star Label: Rykodisc
Released: 2007
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Kelly Willis should be a star.

This isn’t just subjective rock-crit whining, either. So okay, she’s got a helluva set of pipes, and her take on country music is a lot smarter than, say, Faith Hill’s, but that doesn’t really mean much in Nashville; head to any random restaurant in the city, and you can safely say the same things about your waiter. No, Kelly Willis should be a star because she’s got the looks to go along with her voice. When MCA rolled her out in the late ‘80s, there wasn’t exactly a surplus of knockout blondes traveling the Opry circuit; ensuring platinum success should have been as simple as printing up a few thousand posters and greasing the right palms.

But no. After three albums, all MCA had to show for its efforts was three flop albums and a few quasi-hits. This can hardly be considered Willis’ fault – not only did she have the face and the voice, each of her releases for the label was better than the last. She didn’t write much, but few country artists did at the time, and she showed an early knack for choosing terrific songs; some of her early covers included Jim Lauderdale’s “Not Afraid of the Dark” and Marshall Crenshaw’s “Whatever Way the Wind Blows.” In a more perfect parallel universe, Kelly Willis had a series of monster hits during the country boom of the early ‘90s, and Billy Ray Cyrus never happened.

On our own planet, Willis left MCA in 1994 and floated around for awhile, recording some demos with Lyle Lovett and releasing an EP on A&M before getting around to completing her next full-length album, What I Deserve, for Rykodisc in 1999. Ryko has always been one of the better-intentioned indies in the business, but the label’s promotional acumen has wavered between lacking and altogether absent, leaving its rapidly fluctuating roster to pitch its releases to NPR listeners and readers of Paste. All of which helps explain why you’re more likely to see Kelly Willis hawking Claritin than playing her music on TV.

It’s a sad state of affairs, certainly, but not a heartbreaking one; as entertaining as her early albums were, Willis’ Rykodisc releases (Translated from Love is her third) have all landed on the wide middle ground between “solid” and “not spectacular.” She’s a fine songwriter, but her material can’t compete with Lauderdale’s or Crenshaw’s, and as she’s shouldered more of the songwriting burden on her albums, their quality has suffered. She’s still got the pipes, but her more recent material doesn’t charm as effortlessly.

This time around, Willis teamed up with fellow critic’s darlings (and commercial nonentities) Chuck Prophet and Jules Shear, to produce a set that, even if it isn’t her strongest artistically, moves with more purpose than her last couple of releases. The highlights are the covers, unsurprisingly – the best of the bunch are a bright take on Shear’s “The More That I’m Around You” and a loose, Gourds-backed rendition of the Bowie/Iggy Pop chestnut “Success” – but the whole thing flows relatively effortlessly. It probably won’t, and probably shouldn’t, win many awards, but as a gateway drug for country lovers worn out on Rascal Flatts (or, God help us, Bon Jovi), it’s something close to perfect.

~Jeff Giles