Restrained and polished, the Little Willies are the perfect example of a democracy that needs a dictator.
In 2004, around the time of Norah Jones's post-Grammy-sweep backlash, I grabbed a live DVD of her House of Blues concert on my way out of the video store, never having heard her music and wanting to make up my own mind about her. Maybe it was the pint of Robitussin I was on that night, maybe it was low expectations, but her live version of "Cold, Cold Heart" just knocked me out. I couldn't believe that voice: sexy, sexy, sexy. Unfortunately, that was the only performance on the DVD that moved me, leading me to tell my friends for the next year, "Norah Jones would be great if she'd stop singing those light FM tunes her buddy Jesse is writing for her and just stick to Hank Williams songs."
Well, my wish has come true -- to a degree. Jones has teamed up with some of her musician friends (Lee Alexander on bass, Jim Copilongo on Telecaster, Richard Julian on guitar and vocals, and Dan Rieser on drums) to play some good ol' country and western swing music at the Living Room, the Lower East Side club in New York where Jones was discovered a couple years back.
The band has dubbed themselves the Little Willies, and they are at their best when they're playing those great, if-you've-heard-'em-you-love-'em old country classics by some of Nashville's greatest songwriters: Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Hank Williams, Kris Kristopherson, Leiber and Stoller, and Jimmie Driftwood.
They also wrote four original songs for the CD. Jones duets beautifully with Richard Julian on "Easy as the Rain". They're in perfect sync emotionally and musically, sounding like sad old lovers. Is this a May-December, Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris situation?
However, on "Roll On," another original, Jones falters, singing with more earnestness than the vague, cliche lyrics need. "Sometimes we take a right and find out that it's wrong", the song says, fittingly. It's a "gettin' older and learnin' about livin'" kind of message, but it evokes somebody pondering life's mysteries while looking out the window of Starbucks, finishing a decaf cappuccino between a pilates class and the spa. And although her piano playing is solid in execution, it's too careful to feel inspired. And the organ sounds as though he's the guy in the Wallflowers and he's trying to relive the glories of "One Headlight". Influence-wise, I hear too much John Mayer blah and not enough Hank Williams blue. Norah, kill your inner John Mayer!
But let's give the Willies credit for being brave enough to put their originals next to some truly classic tunes from the likes of Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and Kris Kristofferson. On "It's Not You, It's Me", a Little Willies original that stands its ground, Nora's singing is sublime: "Keep on being long and tall, keep on talking with that same old drawl".
On the covers, the band cuts loose a bit. Their version of Kristofferson's county jail weekend tale "Best of All Possible Worlds" is spirited. Richard Julian sounds quite a bit like Lyle Lovett on Hank Senior's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive", which also features Copilongo's weirdest and wildest guitar freak-out. These licks are in the pocket, then they're not, then they are again -- but it's this unpredictability of this Tele-coaster ride that is the best part of this record. The rest of the band is simply solid.
Overall, what I hear on this record is a bunch of good musicians all collectively holding themselves back, nobody wanting to screw up the sweet deal that is a Norah Jones affiliation with too much daring or grandstanding. What results is a perfect example of a democracy that needs a dictator; we can only hope that Nora will grow into that role as she develops her voice.