Calling Works Progress Administration a “supergroup” might be pushing it. Rather than the Justice League of Americana, this new collective is more like the Justice Society, which was, of course, a team made up of superheroes that excluded those who had their own individual comic series. Indeed, WPA is a group of excellent sidemen: Sean and Sara Watkins (fiddler and guitarist behind Chris Thile in Nickel Creek), Luke Bulla (ace fiddle player for Jerry Douglas, Lyle Lovett, and others), veteran pedal steel player Greg Leisz, Elvis Costello’s longtime rhythm section of drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, and keys legend Benmont Tench (Mudcruth and other bands). Finally, front and center is Glen Phillips, singer and chief songwriter of ’90s alternative-pop band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Since he’s the only member accustomed to a starring role, WPA feels, for the most part, like his band. Phillips is listed, along with the Watkinses, as the band’s “core”. Six of the songs on the group’s new self-titled album are Phillips originals, including the two that open the album and the lead single.
That’s one of the drawbacks. Phillips brings the same kind of mellow, mostly-acoustic, safe, reasonably melodic, pleasant-but-predictable songs that he rode to steady success in the ’90s. Here, with backing by such unimpeachable players, Phillips’ tunes take on a more organic and polished sound, although that isn’t enough to elevate songs as banal as these. “Always Have My Love”, the single, is a case in point. It’s a genial strummer driven by a comely little fiddle ride, but the routine melody and Phillips’ vanilla vocals keep the song from going anyplace special. His best song here is easily “End This Now”, a nice blue-eyed country-soul song that Don Henley would like to have written, trimmed with Leisz’s terrific steel work.
As unexciting as Phillips’ songs tend to be, Bulla follows them with a turn for the worse on the thoroughly irritating “Who’s Gonna Cry For You”. It’s a milky, minor-key dirge, typical of the slow, default position of these writers. Bulla is the best of WPA’s three male singers, with a pure, high tenor. There’s no mistaking his instrumental prowess as one of bluegrass’s top fiddle wizards, but he’s not given his best chances to prove it on this record.
After crapping out on two weak power-poppy songs, Sean Watkins delivers one of the album’s real keepers with “Not Sure”, a lovely, powerful ballad, and he’s wise to let Bulla sing it. Tench and Leisz combine to provide sinewy counter-melodies, and Sara Watkins lends dense, soaring vocal harmonies. Watkins, by the way, coming off her own terrific self-titled solo album, feels underused on the album. She sings just two songs, a catatonic cover of Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep” and the album-closing Tench original “The Price”, which alone is worth the price of the album. Watkins wraps her willowy voice around an indelible melody and heartbreak lyrics backed almost solely by Tench’s delicate piano. It’s a stunner.
Clearly, WPA represents some of the finest musicians in roots music. Their mutual admiration and support of each other’s muses is a nice thing. The record does hold moments of inspired beauty, and it’s an album that’s mild and inoffensive enough to go over well when, say, the house is too hectic for more rigorous music. But in terms of songwriting and overall effectiveness, Works Progress Administration proves that this group is weaker than the sum of its parts.