December is the ugliest month of the year for cover albums, jammed as it is with trite do-overs of holiday standards. Now that Santa has taken his tired old tunes back to the Pole, it would be nice to report that Norah Jones and friends – aka the Little Willies – had put a shine back on the idea of recording a disc of songs by others. But some of the best times you can have with this album come when you follow its trail back to a better performance laid down at least a half-century ago.
Almost all the songs were hits for someone in the country pantheon, though most aren't heard much any more around Nashville. The ones that work best for the Little Willies are the those that suit the vocal talents not just of Jones, but of Richard Julian, a long-time colleague who plays guitar in the band and sings on most tracks, sometimes in close harmony, sometimes in the lead.
The two voices find their default temperature in Remember Me, a sentimental hit in the 40s for Lulu Belle and Scotty, whose clean sound and close harmonies made them enormously popular in their day. Jones freshens the song with a few soul inflections, Julian shadows her closely with his wispy pop tenor, and an easy-going band performance does the rest.
They also do well in If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time, which sounds more nimble and knowing than in Lefty Frizzell's swinging but upright version from 1950. The novelty duet Foul Owl on the Prowl (a Quincy Jones soundtrack tune from 1967) benefits from a bit of Jones's sultriness, and some heavy swagger in the accompaniment. Jones's best solo effort comes in Jolene, in which her fragile vocals and strummed acoustic guitar make the whole thing feel more vulnerable than in Dolly Parton's steelier original version.
But as the Willies get into darker material, the ghosts of recordings past take their vengeance. Jones has way too much coo in her sound to handle Fist City, which Loretta Lynn delivered as a real hair-pulling threat. Lovesick Blues sounds more friendly than heart-sore, and wilts badly next to the versions done by Hank Williams or Patsy Cline, whose swinging verging-on-rockabilly performance from 1960, with latter-day backing by Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn) just can't be beat. It gets worse when Julian takes the wheel, for hopelessly underpowered performances of Johnny Cash's Wide Open Road and Kris Kristofferson's Permanently Lonely, which sounds especially lame if you know Timi Yuro's cathartic recording from 1963.
The problem here is simple: Jones and Julian love the Cash and Cline side of country music, but they're really much better suited to the Lulu Belle and Scotty side. When they go for something that needs to be served raw, it comes out cooked, and though the Willies try to compensate by dirtying up the arrangements – check out the acerbic guitar twang in Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves or the thick-string solo in Fist City – it's not enough.
The art of the cover is partly about studying one's own strengths and limitations, and choosing songs accordingly. The Little Willies have made a disc that goes down smoothly enough, but that leaves a lot of the power and passion out of songs that deserve better.
For the Good Times
- The Little Willies
For the Good Times is streaming in its entirety at npr.org.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
POP/FOLK: Sticka Ikebana
- Carlo Meriano
- Three stars
Carlo Meriano lives in Toronto and knows his ways around some of the dark corners of life. If you doubt, listen to Denton on Doomsday, the most ambitious number on this nine-song debut album. The song opens with a sweaty evocation of a drunkard's dry-mouthed morning, moves through an instrumental break whose many harmonic changes presage a narrative full of surprises, through to a showdown rich with distorted guitar and mocking yowls from lap steel. In this and other songs, Meriano shows his gift for laying down a compelling groove, while muttering his scuffed lyrics up his sleeve like a gambler breathing on his dice. The bright jangling accompaniment of To Serve Man aptly portrays the wired alertness of the insomniac in the lyrics, which drift toward rapping as the silt builds up. "I want to be a truck driver on the highway called Nothing to Lose," Meriano sings in Plan B, and you can smell the exhaust. Robert Everett-Green
POP: I Can't Keep All of Our Secrets
- Rae Spoon
- Saved by Radio
- Three stars
"Trans" is sometimes used as shorthand for transgender. It's also a prefix, with the meanings of across, beyond or changing thoroughly. Rae Spoon is a transgendered, transplanted indie musician – a woman who identifies as a man, a Calgarian newly based in Montreal, an alt-folkie turned soulful electro-popster and a human who has devoted a shimmering, high-and-forlorn-voiced album to a passed friend. A transition, then, one exemplified by something like Ghost of a Boy, a silky and spooky pledge about keeping spirits alive. Promises is girl-group music, but with sharper eighties angles. I notice on the album's press release that Spoon is referred to as "they." Yeah, the only things awkward about this unique artist's changeover are the pronouns. Brad Wheeler
Rae Spoon tours Canada, beginning Jan. 19, at Montreal's Casa Del Popolo (see raespoon.com).
BLUES: Tim Bastmeyer
- Tim Bastmeyer
- Two and half stars
Tim Bastmeyer is a Toronto-area blues musician at his best when he colours slightly outside the lines. So if his version of the standard Going Down is tired and inessential, his own What Ever Happened To? asks pop-culture and personal questions in a stylish, gliding manner. Julian Fauth – a Canadian treasure of a piano-man – rolls atop that track and others with a flair that is unique, but never gaudy. Bastmeyer's voice is thin, and while his lyrics often hit, they sometimes miss (the rhyme-o-matic chorus to Cancer Blues). But there are nice moves here, including the jazzy walk-and-talk of Corporate Crazy and a few Doorsian flourishes that really click. B.W.
Tim Bastmeyer plays Toronto's Gladstone Hotel, Jan. 13, with more Ontario dates to follow (see timbastmeyer.com).
JAZZ: Run Stop Run
- William Carn
- Three and a half stars
If amplifiers marked the biggest change for jazz in the sixties, "effects" – a catch-all term covering everything from simple loop pedals to laptop-based sound processing – are the game changer now. Where Carn's last album, 2007's Lessons Learned, was a straight hard-bop outing, this finds him plugged into a Metheny-esque post-fusion sound, looping his trombone into short, brooding tone poems and playing off the electronically enhanced palette of Don Scott's guitar. The textural range is impressive, from the cool, contemplative soundscapes of Q's Idea to the snarlingly aggressive Murphy!, but it's the interplay between the four players that keeps Run Stop Run going. J.D. Considine
Carn's Run Stop Run plays the Rex Hotel in Toronto on Jan. 12.