Twelve rounds, but no knockout punch.
There's a popular saying lots of people place on their MySpace page layouts that figures prominently in Keller Willams' song "More Than a Little", included on his new "best of" collection, 12. The saying goes: "Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody is watching."
But this adage is really only meaningful if you don't think too much about it; it's a whole lot less impressive if you look a bit deeper. Most people, no matter how wealthy, wouldn't work if they didn't get some compensation. And if no one was ever hurt in their lives, how could any of us have empathy for anyone, be they a lover or friend? Finally, when it comes to dancing, well, I'd argue the entire reason most folks shake their proverbials on the dance floor is because they hope someone, somewhere is watching.
Like the above saying, Williams' music does not hold up to close analysis. But it sure seems nice if you're content to engage only with its surface qualities. For example, I enjoyed Williams' last album, Dream, because it worked as both mood music and a showcase for his instrumental virtuosity. The lack of brilliant melodies and profound lyrics didn't make it sound any less good, it just kept it from being compelling. Which is fine, because not everyone needs to be The Killers or Joy Division; there's a place for musicians who are not necessarily great songwriters but are primo players.
And if there is anything certain about Williams, it's the fact that he can play. When it comes to one-man jam bands, no one can touch the guy. But a little of his choppy, slapping guitar playing goes a long way. An album done in this style is fine, but an album covering an entire career built on it is a hard sell, even to someone who enjoys music that's experimental, laid back or both at the same time.
The Virginia-based musician, who has recorded for just around a dozen years, is clearly comfortable being a niche performer. In the press release that accompanies this CD, he jokingly calls the disc a "hitless greatest hits". That, along with his lyrics, shows a humorous self-effacing self-awareness. But in listening to the 12 songs that make up Williams’ twelfth album, 12 (get it?), you wish Williams would show some ambition to break out of his self-imposed cult status. For all the mind-blowing picking that goes on, there are songs that are so limited in melodic range it's equally mind boggling -- and not in a good way.
Early songs like "Tribe" and "Breathe" are largely based around two alternating chords, which is either hypnotic or sleep-inducing, depending on your mindset. "Freeker by the Speaker", one of Williams' most popular tunes, dazzles with mile-a-minute picking. But its story about a concertgoer who spins like a "human dreidel" is rendered inert with its one-note melody and Williams’ too-laconic singing.
The experimental side of Williams' sound comes to the fore on the sample-heavy "Butt Sweat", from the 2002 album Dance. Its mellow groove-meets-trance sound points to a direction that might make Williams' music catch fire. On the other hand, there's "Local", a bona fide bluegrass tune from the 2005 CD Grass, which makes you wonder whether Williams would have been better off going in an acoustic direction. The tune is undone by its lyrics, though, which seem to employ clever rhymes for their own sake ("And the aggravation mixes with the salivation and the motivation").
"People Watchin'" from last year's Dream conjures lite funk from its spare arrangement and showcases the great Bela Fleck on banjo. If ever there were a song in which the lyrical thrust was exemplified by its tone, it's this one. Williams' lyric about reveling in checking out passing parades of people sounds like exactly the sort of unobtrusive music you'd want playing in the background at an outdoor café when you're trying not to be distracted from the eye candy around you.
Williams is often touted as a must-see live act, but the live cut included here, "Keep it Simple" (fromStage) sounds…kinda like everything else, except with some audience noise and applause. Oh well; give the guy points for consistency at least.
On a lot of these numbers, Williams plays odd stringed instruments, like his mini 12-string guitar or a ten-string guitar. That gives the album an original flavor that might serve to seduce some listeners, but it will just as likely bore others. Williams is also a victim of his own era's technology. Thanks to electronic devices like the Echoplex unit he employs, Williams is able to make his one-man-jam thing sound effortless. Had he been around in the 1960s, he'd probably have been forced to join a band like the Quicksilver Messenger Service, where he'd have been prodded to give more. For a jam to work -- heck, for most music in general to work -- there has to be some underlying spark. Williams' ease with instruments and electronics and his too-cool voice undo most of his intensity. He's often compared to The String Cheese Incident (for whom he used to open shows), but he lacks that band's headstrong, rag-tag approach. There are some similarities to Davids Matthews and Gray, but Williams needs snappier choruses to make music as populist as those stars of David.
The place Williams might find a musical home someday might be on the light jazz stations, where the music is usually soporific, all the players are usually first-rate, and passion is not a required trait. Williams expresses anger and rage in a few of these songs, but the feelings are always undercut by his detached vocals. Wonder if he's really as laid back as his music makes him appear.