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Monday, November 20, 2017 
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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Rafael Toral - Space
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+ Chris Thile - How To Grow A Woman From The Ground
+ Brad Mehldau - Live in Japan
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+ Various Artists - Touch 25
+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
+ The White Birch - Come Up For Air
+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Cex - Actual Fucking
+ Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
+ Leafcutter John - The Forest And The Sea
+ Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
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+ Asobi Seksu - Citrus
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+ The Moore Brothers - Murdered By The Moore Brothers
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+ Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
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+ Glissandro 70 - Glissandro 70
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
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+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
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Kelly Willis
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Easy
Rykodisc
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Gifted with a voice that is equal parts fine grain, rich honey and uncovered ache, Kelly Willis has never delivered a record that does her justice. The closest she's come is probably What I Deserve, her eclectic 1999 debut for Rykodisc and coming-out party after a trio of inconsistent country albums for MCA in the early '90s (anthologized nicely on the "One More Time" compilation.) In listening to Easy, her follow-up to What I Deserve, the question that continually arises is how can a singer who so consistently transcends her material be so dependent upon the strength of her songs in crafting a full album?

What I Deserve benefited from a series of inspired co-writes from Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, a raw, obscure Replacements cover ("They're Blind"), and a great folk-rocker penned by Willis' husband, Austin singer/songwriter Bruce Robison ("Not Forgotten You"). But what still impresses me about that album is the way Willis owns every lyric. After digesting Easy for more than a month, that hasn't changed; it's clear that what's missing on it is tempo and lyrical bite. You'd be forgiven for failing to notice that the first time around, because when you hear Willis wrap her voice around even a minimum-wage song like "Not What I Had In Mind," all questions of quality go out the window. The lady has a captivating way with a lyric and, even with the least revealing songs of her career, delivers her most knowing, intimate vocals.

Like Randy Travis, another all-world singer whose albums are usually dotted with crap, Willis redeems even the most ordinary lyrics on a regular basis. As a result, her entire oeuvre is worth hearing even if the miracles in her voice are often too much for the rest of the albums, musicians, and songwriters to match. You'll never regret time spent with a Kelly Willis record, but save What I Deserve, none will ever be a desert-islander, either.

All Willis albums have one overarching theme: love. That single-minded focus threatens to limit Willis' artistic growth, because while she's adept at exploring the vagaries of her subject of choice, she's not giving herself the chance to investigate new topics. Two or three albums down the road, there may not be new ground to cover in the lover-scorned, failed-romance, can't-get-over-you landscape. If you're going to do nothing but love songs, you need them to be emotionally complex; and with few exceptions, these aren't.

Compounding that, Easy is too stately, too well behaved and Nashville country for its own good. Chuck Prophet plays some nice acoustic guitar and the sound is warm and clear (and distinctly country-soul, whereas What I Deserve showed more of a commitment to rock 'n' roll) but the playing is too mannered. Remove Willis' sly vocal track from her cover of Marcia Ball's "Find Another Fool" and you'll be hard pressed to separate the backing track from most of what is coming out of Nashville these days. The mood rarely varies from downbeat, and when it does the results aren't always pretty. "You Can't Take It With You," a banjo-driven Paul Kelly cover, is jarring but doesn't drum up any excitement. Willis' vocals are better framed by thick electric guitars or folk strumming than old-school country instrumentation anyway. In fact, she might be best served by a batch of dramatically arranged power ballads.

The gems on Easy are those that are most forthright in their beats and composition; their scarcity suggests Willis is running up against the limits of her approach. Still, even as I'm frustrated by most of the cuts here, there are two that always run me right over: "What Did You Think," another Robison classic that's simple without being clichéd ("What did you think that I could say to you/ That you ain't heard/ Wondering what in the world do I know about love") and which has such a warm and inviting first 40 seconds I find myself repeating it again and again, and a fun romp through Kristy MacColl's "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!"


by Ryan DeGama




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