Music

Willie Nelson / Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel

Joshua O'Neill

Nelson is the ideal singer for this sort of material, but a magical voice like his just doesn't belong in such mundane, stilted surroundings.


Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel

Willie and the Wheel

Label: Bismeaux
US Release Date: 2009-02-03
UK Release Date: 2009-02-03
Website
Amazon
iTunes

Legends run the risk of becoming gimmicks. When Aretha Franklin is trotted out at Obama's inauguration, befitted in her enormous hat to sing the National Anthem, the effect is less musical than it is contextual. It's not about Aretha singing the anthem, it's about "Aretha" singing the "anthem". A voice that's iconic and unique and immediately recognizable can actually become a weakness. The voice will never be subsumed into the music, supporting and communicating the song. You will always be a celebrity first, and an artist second.

Willie Nelson has chosen an odd but effective strategy to combat this mummification of his image: debasement. If he duets with anyone and everyone in earshot, his singing can never become sanctified or inert. In a way, it's a canny strategy. The "legend" tag, while entirely earned and deserved, has always been somewhat at odds with Nelson's low-key persona as the ramblin' singer and guitar-picker, lover of life and devoted pot-head. So he just does everything, devaluing his myth by singing with Rob Thomas and Snoop Dogg, appearing in The Dukes of Hazzard, and campaigning for Kinky Friedman. It takes the pressure off and keeps the mothballs at bay.

His life looks like a hell of a lot of fun, but the resulting art isn't always good. His new album with western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel is a nice ride, as far as it goes. It sounds lively in the background -- all swingin' horns and jazz guitar underlying Willie's laid-back, quicksilver voice -- but there isn't much there to listen to. There are a handful of great moments -- the brass-band carnival on "Hestitation Blues", the goofball joy of hearing Nelson sing lines like "I ain't gonna give nobody none of my jelly-roll" -- and Willie's in rare form throughout, loose as ever, richly amused, making the most unusual phrasings sound natural and obvious. But the album's ultimately predictable, polished, even a little phony. It has nothing to do with the outlaw country that made Nelson a star. It's great stuff for middle-aged people to put on at cocktail parties. I intend this as less of a condemnation than it probably sounds, but I don't mean it as a compliment.

To be fair, there are one or two terrific performances. "Bring It on Down to My House, Honey" is a legitimately great hootenanny, freewheeling and alive, but it could have used more of the DIY, punky spirit of Springsteen's Seeger Sessions, which deflated what could have been a staid tribute by cranking everything to 11 and playing wild and loose. Asleep at the Wheel are far too expert for all that. A lot of the fun feels like "fun" -- studied, polished replicas of the kind of music that people loved without taking too seriously when it was organic and new. On "Oh! You Pretty Woman", when Jason Roberts sings "She made my heart go boop-boopy-doop", squeaking goofily on the last syllables, it sounds pandering, po-faced, like the mugging, forced mirth of a children's entertainer. It sounds self-conscious. It sounds like a recreation.

Respect and seriousness are poison to this kind of music. There's an almost finger-waggingly schoolmarm-ish quality to the goings on here, as though we're being told to eat our vegetables, when this stuff should be cotton candy, disposable, lighter than air, teeth-rottingly delightful. Willie brings everything he's got to bear, acquiting himself admirably in an otherwise miscalculated effort. He's the ideal singer for this sort of material, but a magical voice like his just doesn't belong in such mundane, stilted surroundings.

5

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image