While informality is The Little Willies’ stock-in-trade – they formed in New York in 2003 to play what they thought would be a one-off gig – the fame of pianist and singer Norah Jones has brought them many a column-inch.
Now 32, the comely, velvety-voiced star had sold 30 million albums by the time she was 26. In the relaxed, intermittently active side-project that is The Little Willies, however, Jones downplays her celebrity to give equal billing to the singer/guitarist Richard Julian, the lead guitarist Jim Campilongo, the bassist Lee Alexander and the drummer Dan Rieser.
Taking its title from the included Kris Kristofferson standard of the same name, For the Good Times is the quintet’s second collection of country cover-versions. Once again their sometimes famous, sometimes quirky selections are evidence of great taste. Dolly Parton’s Jolene is slowed to concentrate the dark desperation of the lyric, while the record’s take on Loretta Lynn’s Fist City sees Jones exude a feistiness that anyone who last connected with her via her mellow 2002 debut Come Away with Me might find surprising.
Detractors critical of the laid-back approach of Jones’s early output labelled her “Snorah” Jones. In truth, though, she’s long been awake to musical reinvention. Her many collaborations have included outings with the Foo Fighters and Outkast, while last year she even displayed a hitherto hidden flair for rockabilly guitar-playing while playing live shows with the all-girl trio Puss N’ Boots.
It is rootsy country as pursued on For the Good Times, though, that Jones has said is closest to her heart. Although she majored in jazz piano at university and her father is the venerable sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, she heard plenty of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams records when her American mother raised her in Grapevine, Texas. Consequently, the country yodel inflections she employs when duetting with Richard Julian on Cliff Friend and Irving Mills’s Lovesick Blues come naturally.
The other Little Willies, too, have an easy facility with classic country material – and not least on Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves, Cal Martin’s trucking anthem about night driving and shapely women. There, as on the album’s one original track, Tommy Rockwood, Campilongo showcases some rollicking Telecaster runs (the latter tune, a note on the guitarist’s website explains, is named after the man who books the bands at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York).
Other songs here tap into country music’s mother lode of heartache, and one cannot help but muse upon the dynamic between Jones and Alexander (before their split in December 2007, Alexander was Jones’s boyfriend and had been her key writing partner for eight years) while recording this album. Nailing Scott Wiseman’s Remember Me (“You told me that I was yours ’till the end of eternity / but all those vows are broken now ...”) must surely have unleashed a certain emotional resonance, but it seems logical to assume that Jones and Alexander have moved on and remain friends, reconvening The Little Willies for, well, the good times.
The sense that this was a fun, anything-but-fraught record to make is perhaps most apparent on the wildcard selection Fowl Owl on the Prowl.” Written by Quincy Jones, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman for the 1967 race-relations/detective film In the Heat of the Night, it finds Jones and Julian savouring the song’s store of masterfully economical rhymes (my personal favourite: “If you hear him hoot / scoot.”)
Nothing here is going to change the world, but if it’s incumbent upon a good covers collection to alert a new audience to some neglected gems, job done. In interviews, Jones has been promising to make a full-on country album of original songs for some years now; until she does, her latest outing with The Little Willies will do just fine.
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