Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kelly Willis 1990-2007

Kelly Willis has had an imperfect career, but she is none the less gifted with a very nearly perfect country singing voice. Her earlier records on MCA, Well Travelled Love 1990, Bang Bang 1991, and Kelly Willis 1993, were all good efforts, and had some fine songs. But nothing sold terribly well. This era was reprised recently (2011) on One More Time. There's a CD worth your time for sure.
After an EP for A&M she began an independent relationship with Rykodisc, and has made three stellar records. 1999's What I Deserve is just remarkable at every turn. Willis' twang is at once vulnerable and steeled for a fight. She writes half the songs, and uses particularly skilled partners, including Chuck Prophit, whose skills as writer, producer, and guitarist served Willis well on this as well as the next two. Take Me Down, What I Deserve, Not Forgotten You, Wrapped- all of them, and generally the whole record, is perfect writing around lovely (and smart) lyrics, sung by a terrific voice with seriously deep soul, and backed by a half Nashville, half LA band with country chops and pop smarts.

Easy 2002 repeated the formula to near perfection again. If I Left You, with it's great lyrical turn, Easy (As Falling Apart), and Kirsti MacColl's Don"t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! are all top notch. But so is Not What I Had In Mind, with the remorse of the morning after with the ex, made as explicit as only a great country song can.

If you're like me, and you've been blown away by the last two, you almost have to give the next one a shot. Translated From Love 2007 continues the thrill. Great songs, great singing, great band. Hooks, teardrops, and mostly straight country backing. This isn't that big Nashville Product you're used to. It's closer to k.d. lang than to Faith Hill, closer to early Trisha Yearwood than to Dixie Chicks.

Listening to these CDs again, I am stunned by the consistency of the performances. Plus Willis has an amazing voice. Not just a good one, a truly unique talent. When you put it together with killer songs and perfect (not over-stated) production, and you can keep it up for three whole records (or five, since Bang Bang and Kelly Willis come darn close!), you should be rich and very famous.

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