Kelly Willis: Easy

John Kenyon

Kelly Willis


Label: Rykodisc
US Release Date: 2002-08-20
UK Release Date: 2002-08-19

The current crop of those most successful female singers who fall into the genre slice known as alt-country excel because they all bring something beyond generic good pipes to the proceedings. Where many hitmakers are interchangeable hotties with pleasant voices, these women bring character to their music, something that means being marginalized in the marketplace and earning kudos on the fringes.

Neko Case is confrontational, pushing songs with her powerful voice, conveying a ballsiness through her delivery. Shelby Lynne is sassy, adding a world-weariness that Case can't yet muster, while Lynne's little sister, Allison Moorer refines that sass, much as the little sister of a hellion is wont to do.

And Kelly Willis? Her voice is the equal of the others, but she comes at her music from a different tack. She's the quiet one, the one who has been hurt, is a little tentative. She uses her voice like a precise instrument. Where the others -- Case and Lynne, in particular -- get by on brute force, Willis is all about the surgical strike, a quaver here, a long sigh there, and you're hooked. It was a voice seemingly primed for mainstream success. While the others have been perhaps a bit too much to be roped by Nashville's bland lasso, Willis was just sweet enough, just submissive enough, to succeed.

It didn't happen. When Willis gave Nashville a shot; the establishment shot back. She released three solid albums on MCA in the 1990s, but none caught on like one would expect. Or rather, like one would expect if he didn't look blow the surface. Willis was a singer not quite willing to fit the mold, a peg that if not completely squared off, certainly one with a less-than-round form that didn't make for easy insertion in the mainstream's slots.

The albums were pleasant, transcendent at times, but didn't yield hits to match the rave reviews. Her maverick tendencies -- which included the inspired choice of eclectic covers by the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale, Paul Kelly and Marshall Crenshaw -- ran counter to the prevailing trends in Nashville. As a result, she was consigned to the sidelines.

But with the value of hindsight, it's clear that's where Willis will flourish. She made a smooth transition thanks to some leading alt-country lights. First came a duet with Son Volt's Jay Farrar on the Townes Van Zant track "Buckskin Stallion Blues" on the CD Red, Hot and Bothered, then the Fading Fast EP for A&M Records with three-quarters of the Jayhawks in tow. While her delivery and the song structures were similar to those found on the MCA discs, they lacked the studio sheen that marred those releases. Like a woman shedding an unneeded layer of makeup to reveal the natural beauty within (a fitting metaphor in more ways than one for the fetching Willis), the singer seemed freer in the new setting, better able to play to her strengths.

Her two albums since have been marvelous collections of traditional country, the first with a pop-soul sheen, the most recent tinged with homey bluegrass tones. Her self-confidence seemingly bolstered by those stop-gap efforts, Willis seemed like a new artist on 1999's What I Deserve. The disc sounded like a not-so-thinly veiled reference to her mistreatment at the hands of Nashville and a lush statement of purpose. The originals, spun by her pen and that of husband Bruce Robison, were ready-made classics, and her choice of covers -- including tunes from Paul Westerberg and Nick Drake -- was impeccable as usual.

The new Easy shows another subtle shift, shedding the country-soul of its predecessor in favor of a traditional country-bluegrass template. The result plays like her albums on MCA should have, a classic sound pleasantly blanketing thoroughly modern sentiments. Like the title of What I Deserve, the new disc's title could be seen as another jab at Nashville: See how easy this is when you do it right?

Willis is joined, as usual, by a stellar supporting cast. In addition to hubby Robison, she is aided by Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Chuck Prophet, Mark Spencer, Vince Gill, Lloyd Maines and Ian McLagan. But where the production on What I Deserve bathed each tune in atmosphere and mood, Easy is built largely on crisply played acoustic instruments. Things are so simple here, the stars, while not wasted, don't add much that is identifiable to the mix. The feel comes through Willis's vocals. She veers more closely to the sentiments of her sisters in song, with tracks like Marcia Ball's "Find Another Fool" or Robison's "What Did You Think?" giving her the chance to add some grit to her delivery, to take the welcome mat off her back. She does it well, turning things up just a notch. You can believe this pushover sweetheart has finally had enough.

The disc closes on an oddly incongruous tune. Musically, "Reason to Believe" fits. But lyrically, Willis seems to snap back to reality. The women in those previous songs were just characters. On this tune, we hear the real Willis, a new mother singing a lullaby to her son. It's as if, after an album of defiance and determination, Willis needed to end on a happy note. As solid as this album is, she can do pretty much what she wants. Easy is another stellar album, beautifully played and more beautifully sung from the first note to the last. And whatever her next salvo, even if it's a hybrid rehash of these last two discs called I Still Deserve It This Easy, it'll be worth a listen.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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

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