January 10, 2012
The Little Willies
For the Good Times
After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me.
Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics. For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.
The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves. Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort. Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.
If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly. In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully. Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals. Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.
One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Fact: Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover. Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow. But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier. Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.
Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record. Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.” On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker. A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else. No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.
The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover. Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick. Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.