CD Review of The Little Willies by The Little Willies

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The Little Willies
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Milking Bull/Blue Note/EMI
Released: 2006
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In 2003, Norah Jones, Lee Alexander, Jim Campilongo, Richard Julian and Dan Reiser booked a live show in New York to have some fun and play the music of some American songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Leiber & Stoller. What started as a lark became an enjoyable side project for all involved, which led to the release of this self titled debut.

This record is flat-out fun, and you can hear that clearly track after track. Julian and Jones share most of the vocal duties, taking turns and doing a few duets. Most of the record is up-tempo country honky tonk with a touch of the blues, and features absolute killer piano playing by Jones, accented by the simple but well executed guitar work of Campilongo. Jones’ previous recordings are dominated by an overall melancholy reminiscent of darkly lit, smoky late night jazz clubs. Her raspy and distinctive voice lends itself effectively to that type of material, but this record utilizes it in a much lighter manner. It is an interesting contrast to her previous work and a surprisingly effective one, indicating a bit more range of material for her to explore. Julian sounds a bit like Lyle Lovett, without the sad back stories that inhabit his lyrics.

Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall” and the Julian/Campilongo penned “Easy as the Rain” have a sadder vibe than the rest of the album, but provide a nice contrast to the other work without sounding out of place. “Easy as the Rain” is a perfect example of the distinctive beauty of the Julian/Jones harmonies. “Tennessee Stud” is the only song out of the 43-plus minutes that isn’t up to snuff, but even that misstep has a decent little guitar solo in it. “Lou Reed,” the Julian/Jones/Alexander-written track that concludes the album, is the perfect example that these musicians were having fun. The lyrics satirize the notoriously prickly reputation of Lou Reed by placing him in the middle of some cow tipping activity.

It is early in the year, but The Little Willies is joining P.O.D.’s Testify as a strong contender to make my top ten list at the end of the year.

~R. David Smola