Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have been married for years, but they have rarely recorded together. They have staked out their own careers in a similar musical field by following separate tracks. That’s why it seems so strange that the lovingest couple in Austin, Texas joined together to release an album of cheating songs. Not all the tracks on Cheater’s Game have to do with deceitful behavior or being wronged by a loved one. However, most of them are and several of them were penned by Robison.
Don’t get the wrong idea. The close vocal harmonies on the hurting songs (and the happier ones) suggest that the two are still together for the long term. Their voices compliment each other in phrasing and emotions. Unlike traditional male / female duets (think of Nancy and Lee or George and Tammy), these two don’t take turns singing. They let each lead on the various cuts and then weave their own voices through the tunes. The effect is that the two sound like one, albeit different voices from the same consciousness. Who is the real person, the one singing aloud or the one heard in the back of one’s mind? It takes an Oliver Sacks to know, and even he’s not sure most of the time!
Let’s face it. We all have many personae that not only meet the faces that we meet, but that talk to ourselves about what we think and feel. Kelly and Bruce express this through their separate voices that alternately harmonize and rub against each other to create friction. Consider the Robison-penned heartbreaker, “Leavin’”, in which he sings lead. The song’s sad point is that “all the girls look the same when they’re leavin’”, but Willis’ breathy vocals lets you know that the girls themselves feel the same pain that he does. This deepens the lyrics to suggest that the poor sap singing the song has been the cause of his own pain. His self-centeredness never allowed him to really see his partner as anything more than an extension of himself. They are as lost in the haze of memory as they were in his life.
And when Willis takes the lead, such as on the old Dickey Lee weeper, “9,999,999 Tears”, Robison returns the complement. He plays the part of the haunted lover who left. He’s barely there, which is the point. He’s gone. You can feel the hurt he produced through the ache in Willis’ voice, but you also get the impression that the man who caused it doesn’t care. That makes the injury even worse—nine million, nine hundred, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred, ninety tears won’t be enough to bring solace.
Robison, who has been known to rock, sticks to the acoustic guitar here. The man who has penned best-selling records for artists like the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, knows his way around a lyric. He wrote or co-wrote seven of the 13 songs here, and has such evocative lines as “Still as a bowling pin / Watching the ball roll in”, “After all, rock bottom’s not too far down”, and “She used to curl up, like the steam from a train”. These lines aren’t flashy. They are better than that—they reveal character and create the setting so that the listener understands the singer’s state of mind in a simple but detailed manner.
The duo also have good taste in other people’s songs, which they make their own through their distinctive interpretations. For example, Willis turns Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio” into the lament of the woman left behind, while Robison makes Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer” into a plaintive celebration of a social world that used to be. The originals and the covers blend together well. The result is a cohesive album, which complements the concept of Willis and Robison joining together as one.
I have to admit, when I first heard that Kelly and Bruce were putting out an album of cheatin’ songs I thought, “Hot damn, maybe now I can have a shot at Kelly”. No doubt distaff fans felt the same about Bruce. That’s not the case here. Cheater’s Game just goes to prove how close the two are.