(This is a review for BBM Magazine, also available here: http://www.bbmlive.com/music-news/the-little-willies-for-the-good-times-album-review.html)
This is the newest release from Norah Jones. No, hang on! Come back! It’s half decent. Honestly. The Little Willies, her collaborative country shtick, put out their second cover album following 2006’s The Little Willies (Milking Bull). Teaming up with the notable pair Jim Campilongo (guitar) and Richard Julian (vocals), Jones and The Little Willies strum up a fine, sweet homage to the country establishment of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson.
The gliding tones of the record come direct with Scotty Wiseman’s ‘Remember Me.’ Like a slow bowing of a violin, it swoons a little, tugs you a little. Its tenderness is beautifully immediate. ‘Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves’ (Cal Martin) is flirtatious with mariachi, akin to the Coens’ Fargo soundtrack. That North Dakota folksy charm; the Oklahoman small town drive. The duel vocal work of Jones and Julian is all but flawless. On Willie Nelson’s ‘Perfectly Lonely,’ Julian hits the melody around with a candied nonchalance. Here, Jones follows with her patented Nice, Soft Voice, but for the most part it works.
The album does sweat a little. For fans, this may be an exciting take on classical country music. For pretty much everyone else, it is the definition of unsexy. ‘Lovesick Blues’ (Mills and Friend), despite frankly stupendous vocal harmonies, hits you in the gut like accidentally catching a look at your mum’s bum. ‘Tommy Rockwood’ is stratospherically awful. Far too often, the album is unambitious. Despite some curious flourishes from Campilongo’s elastic Telecaster, in some places he is underused when he ought to be foregrounded (‘Foul Owl on the Prowl’, Jones, Bergman and Bergman) and saturatingly widespread when he should be moderated (‘Wide Open Road,’ Johnny Cash).
As for the big cheeses covered here, Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is gently loved by Jones. Nelson’s ‘Perfectly Lonely’ opens with cleverly inter-picking guitar and piano, and is well rendered, if a little like the music for a Pixar montage. Johnny Cash could have abused himself less from heroin and listened to the cover of ‘Wide Open Road’ to really rip himself open. Nonetheless, much of this record is redemptive, unapologetic in its love of a bit of hotel foyer schmaltz, and we should be grateful if all covers were handled and repackaged with this much devotion.