The only thing Kelly Willis and Iggy Pop had in common up to now was recording a song with the same title, “Bang Bang”. On Willis’ first album in five years, she tackles Lust for Life-era Pop and completes an album of simple beauty (“Stone’s Throw Away” and “Sweet Little One”) and friendly beasts (“Teddy Boys” and “Success”), winding up with the most unusual album of her career. That the beasts trump beauty is the fun.
The faux ferociousness of “Teddy Boys” is not a likely single for Willis in 2007, which is why it’s wickedly ideal. Imagine a gender bending gal looking “for something nasty” among tough posers and having a blast singing about it. The song is guided by Michael Ramos’ whimsical Moog, yet reminiscent of the pub rock eclecticism that helped put Austin on the roots map. With Greg Leisz and Chuck Prophet on twin guitars, Willis sings about the excitement of meeting her posse: “I’m a man, maybe two/ And I see you Teddy Boys/ Like a mad dog in a dream/ I want ice cream Teddy Boys”.
You might call it plain bizarre, as if her rockabilly band from her early days has returned, although the song carries a more powerful punch than her Nashville recordings from the early 1990s. While Willis co-wrote half the songs, “Teddy Boys” was penned by ex-Moldy Peach Adam Green, whose songwriting chops have developed exponentially from his days in the NYC novelty band. Elsewhere she sings of rocketships and doing the twist, although she offers traditional bluegrass (“Losing You”) and aching ballads (“Stone’s Throw Away”) to accompany the rockabilly. “Losing You” is bolstered by Leisz on pedal steel and banjo, while the country blues waltz “Stone’s Throw Away” is a standout with its delicate steel and Willis matter-of-fact pleading. The Tosca String Quartet, the Austin ensemble that brings cool to every project, sweetens both songs with cello, viola and violin.
After a respectable sabbatical to tackle the hardest job in the world (raising children), Willis’ own songwriting has not lost any of its exacting charm, but the choice of covers elevates her sixth album beyond the usual. Credit goes to producer Chuck Prophet who also plays guitar throughout, as he did on Easy (2002) and What I Deserve (1999). Over the years Willis has been produced by some big names (Tony Brown, Don Was), but it took Americana legend Prophet to bring out Willis’ natural sense of childlike wonder. Two of the most personal songs, “Sweet Little One” and “Losing You”, are co-writes between Willis and Prophet. Together, they worked with Jules Shear on a few more tunes, including the ‘60s girl group-sounding “Don’t Know Why” and the infectious pop of “The More I’m Around You”.
Recorded in three weeks at the home studio Willis shares with country singer Bruce Robison, the project was managed by Prophet, who brought some curious material to the sessions. Most notably the David Bowie/Iggy Pop rave up “Success”, whose delicious sense of irony cannot be lost on the musicians who played on it. A Vox Continental organ played by Ramos channels a “96 Tears”-like riff, and Willis sings the goofy chorus that her four young children (ranging in age from a 18 months to six years) must adore: “I’m gonna do the twist, I’m gonna do the twist/ I’m gonna jump up and down, I’m gonna jump up and down.” Here comes the zoo, mama! Ramos pumps the Vox like a mad grinder and The Gourds sing gang background vocals. Arguably the standout track in spite of itself, “Success” is a perfect combination of hokum and celebration.
Meanwhile, “I Must Be Lucky” demonstrates Willis can rock the joint in more traditional ways, partly by reuniting with steel guitarist Michael Hardwick, who played in her rockabilly band Radio Ranch (from the Nashville MCA days). With Prophet on baritone guitar, “I Must Be Lucky” is a thick slice of Texas twang unlike anything she has recorded in a decade thanks to Hardwick supplying much of the spit and sizzle.
Translated From Love, with its dozen songs about the resilience of love, is a kick in the pants compared to the relatively mellow Easy, which showcased her talents more as a maturing singer. While the acoustic title track by self-described “hillbilly cat” Stephen Yerkey could have been included on any of Willis’ past albums, here it concludes the wild ride on a reflective note, a swaying combination of standup bass and accordion. And Willis, who may possess the most heartfelt voice in country music, is momentarily subdued.
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