Willie Nile fans have waited three years between the rock singer-songwriter’s studio albums. Let me rephrase that: Nile’s fans have waited only three years for House of a Thousand Guitars, his first album of new material since 2006’s excellent Streets of New York. There was a time in the history of recorded music – up through the 1970s, say – when a three-year gap between releases would’ve been evidence of some major upheaval in the artist’s life. Even a highly creative band like Pink Floyd spent a mere two years preparing each of its masterpieces. Anymore, though, the pace at which bands and singers issue new records is not so rushed. We may have shorter attention spans here in the 21st century, but we’re apparently more willing to allow our favorite acts the necessary time to create a fulfilling work.
Those who’ve followed Willie Nile have had to learn more patience than most other fans, though. Last year, I chronicled Nile’s career trajectory in my review for Live from the Streets of New York, his very fine 2008 concert album. As a brief summary, his 30-year career in the music industry has been beset by protracted stretches between new albums; mostly, these were due to label disputes. Now, with three releases in four years, Nile is enjoying his most prolific period ever.
House of a Thousand Guitars picks up right where Streets of New York left off, continuing an aesthetic that Willie Nile has employed his self-titled 1980 debut. The man is a rock ‘n’ roller, so his recipe is simple: guitar, drums, bass, and maybe a smattering of piano or organ, if he’s feeling fancy. The sound these instruments make are not filtered through flangers or cut-and-pasted in Pro Tools. Like every album Nile has ever made, House of a Thousand Guitars sounds like it was recorded live in one room. On a couple of cuts, Nile even counts off the tempo – click tracks be damned. If authenticity is an important issue for you, then Willie Nile is your man. He makes The Boss sound fussy and the ‘Mats seem overly self-conscious. At the same, he evokes both of these acts. Like Springsteen, the Buffalo-bred Nile is a working class troubadour who knows how to make rock sound both genuine and grand. The Replacements show up in smaller doses. Mostly, Westerberg and Nile share the ability to write elegantly while coming off as scruffy street poets. Other comparisons that have been made and will be made again: Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, and Lou Reed. Willie Nile is the bastard child of their ménage a trois.
Once again, across the dozen songs on House of a Thousand Guitars, Nile offers melodies, phrasings, hooks, riffs, and lyrics that all seem to have been lifted straight from the universal Fake Book in the Sky. For instance, when you hear the honky-tonk guitar refrain that opens “Run”, you will swear that it’s a cover. By the time Nile hits the chorus, you’ll be scrambling through your Tom Petty CDs to try to find the original version. Of course, “Run” is a brand new Nile original. All of these tunes are. That won’t stop you form singing along with them mid-way through your first listen. “Doomsday Dance” is a catchy, Southern-tinged rocker that you’d expect to hear thumping out of a bar in Austin. Again, you’ll probably believe you have heard it before. “Magdelena” is the biggest culprit of the bunch. From it’s “What I Like About You”-like intro to its insistent and stomping chorus, you’ll join right in with the background singers, belting out, “She’s myyyyyyyyyy Magdelena”, along with Nile and his able bandmates.
Don’t start thinking that Willie Nile has but the one modus operandi, though. He is both a rocker and a careful crafter of songs. “Her Love Falls Like Rain” is a lovely pop ballad that the Byrds should’ve written in 1965. Nile sings its delicate, ascending melody with surprising grace, too. Most often, one appreciates his vocals despite their lack of refinement. He follows this sweet ditty with the album’s darkest number, “Now That the War Is Over”. It’s at this point that Nile stretches just a tad too far outside his comfort zone. The song’s haunted, soundtracky piano refrain is a tad too precious, and his lyrics occasionally slip into cliché. It’s meant to be a contemporary tale of the aftermath of fighting in the Middle East, but he gives his twenty-something characters stock names from a ‘50s musical. Wouldn’t his “Mickey” and “Sally” be more believable as “Tyler” and “Jordan”? Still, it is affecting when Nile sings about a young widow who’s husband “is buried in Pakistan”. This, of course, is a more important detail, and the songwriter gets it right.
It’s probably the nakedness of a song like “Now That the War Is Over” that invites such close scrutiny. Really, almost every Willie Nile song could be accused of slipping into cliché. Certainly, the way that listeners approach his music will have a huge bearing on their level of appreciation. Cynical ears may quickly reject the material on this album as anachronistic or corny. After all, the title track describes an afterworld tailored to six-string slingers of yore, from John Lee Hooker to Jimi Hendrix. Such a gushing display of fondness for one’s heroes isn’t very cool, but it is heartfelt as all get-out. In this new record’s press release, Nile is quoted as saying, “The fire is still blazing inside of me.” Certainly, his enthusiasm for music and love and life is one of his greatest selling points. That, and he’s a terrific songwriter. On House of a Thousand Guitars, both of Willie Nile’s strongest traits are on full display once more.