Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison--"No Kinda Dancer" (mp3)
When was the last time you owned a CD that had stellar songs top to bottom? When was the last time you had a CD whose songs got better and better with each listen? When was the last time you burned a CD for a friend, who also fell in love with the CD? And when you asked him which was his favorite song, he responded that it was impossible to name a favorite song? When was the last time you cared about country? And I don't mean radio country; I mean real country.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new CD by Kelly Willis and her husband, Bruce Robison, Cheater's Game. Now, if you know the kind of music snob I am, then you know that I care nothing for radio country. I consider it to be one of this country's great abominations, a collective attempt to create a world of false rurality (my word) as a way of evoking a false nostalgia for what never was. It is safe, it is overproduced, it is not country, at least as I once knew it.
Willis and Robeson want none of this, even though she possesses the achingly-beautiful country voice and he has written hits for the stars. No, their sound and scope are smaller--these arrangements do not translate to arenas and festivals, these songs reach no farther than the trials and tribulations of love, a thing that seems to be usually lost. Going back to what country once was is what makes this such an intimate, brilliant CD.
All the musical trappings of real country are here--banjo, mandolin, dobro, fiddle, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, harmonica, haunting solo vocals and and natural harmonies. But unless I've missed it, I don't hear an electric guitar or a baritone guitar ripping pseudo-rock runs and solos. Well, maybe once, on "9,999,999 Tears," which is the very catchy song that would be a hit single in a different universe. But you aren't going to jump up and down or clap along with any of these songs.
What you will do is play this CD over and over and over, singing along with the catchy choruses, tearing up at the real emotions, reflecting on your own life after hearing about these lives.
I've owned a couple of Kelly Willis CDs over the years; I've always like her voice, her arrangements, and her song choices. But I also found her sound a little bit sterile, something that I admired rather than induldged in. Now I realize that what was missing was her husband, Bruce Robison. The combination of the two of them, taking turns taking lead vocals, trading verses, sharing choruses, allowing each other to own entire songs, makes each song a surprise. Their voices and sensibilities blend beautifully, but, just as much, it is the way they use their voices for different purposes from song to song that makes this CD so rich. Sometimes one or the other will only sing part of a verse in the other's song.
What makes this work so well is that Willis is not unlike Emmylou Harris--much as I love to hear her voice alone, I enjoy it just as much as a harmony instrument.
Every song on Cheater's Game is a highlight. Willis sings the opener, the title track, a slow ballad that sets the tone for the CD with its characterization of heartache and the cost of love. Then Robeson takes over on "Border Radio," an uptempo two-step of a woman remembering a lover gone and hoping he is listening to the same song piping in from Mexico. But the third song, "We're All The Way," really showcases the couple's talents--they sing it mostly as a duet, Robison a little higher in the mix, but Willis' harmonies, especially when stating the title line, confirm the sentiment of the song.
A personal favorite is "No Kinda Dancer," that kind of sentimental song that gets me with its tender portrayal of a relationship moment and with its gorgeous chorus. What man is not moved by one of those moments when a woman shows him that he can do something that he didn't think that he could do?
A listener would be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn't have a great chorus. That's where the two voices always meet. But Robeson also has considerable chops as a songwriter, and the caliber of his songs (the kind that a Tim McGraw wouldn't be interested in), as well as their choice of older tunes to cover, rely as much on the words as the music:
She used to curl up
Like the steam from a train
I can still her see her but she's gone just the same
Pulls her hand from mine
So damn hard to find you, find you, find you.
Cheater's Game is, for me, the surprise of the year, the what-the-heck CD I got off of eMusic when I couldn't find anything else, the return to a country sensibility that I haven't indulged in in some time, the record from that strange year 2013 that sticks in my head and that I return to over and over and over again. No one could have predicted that, least of all me. A CD this durable, this emotionally-resonant, is a wonderful discovery indeed.