Poor Norah Jones. She’d scarcely had time to absorb her squillions of Grammys before her star was being cast down as something bland, something uncool, something just a bit naff.
If she’s smarting from such insults, she’s not showing it. The Little Willies finds Jones truckin’ her way ‘cross America to assemble a side project made up of friends who enjoyed jamming together. It pays homage to country-blues Americana, from Willie Nelson through Kris Kristofferson to the collective’s own material.
Immediately it’s clear that this is more than a vanity project for Jones. She shares the bulk of the vocal duties with singer-guitarist Richard Julian, who co-writes three of the songs. Bassist Lee Alexander doubles as the producer and is responsible for the woozy Roll On. The three get together to write a presumably comedic homage to Lou Reed called, well, Lou Reed. In it the great man is accused of “cow tipping”, while Jones manages to shrilly namedrop Fellini. Suspend disbelief if you will.
The main problem is the genre. Country music tends towards reflective lyrics and a lived-in vibe, a passing on of lessons learned. It walks tallest when relating experiences and regrets, formed over a lifetime, or at least a large portion of one. Younger musicians can do it – and some do it well – but on this record there’s a feeling of unreality, like the point has been missed.
Jones’ talent for performance has never been in question. She’s technically as capable of covering Willie Nelson’s I Gotta Get Drunk as anyone else, but her voice lacks any edge of experience that would make the piece ring true. In Nelson’s hands it sounds like a hobo declaring the obvious after a life of hard knocks and bitter experiences. With Jones, there’s little suggestion that she feels the lyrics – she seems rather to be enjoying her technical proficiency. The result is anodine; difficult to love.
Julian’s voice, likewise, is pleasant enough but sadly devoid of any character or distinction. It could be anyone singing his parts. Jones hollering backing vocals all over him doesn’t help. Julian’s writing collaboration with fellow Little Willie Jim Campilongo, Easy As The Rain, suggests plenty of talent, but fails to move. A microcosm of the album, which feels closer to a recital than a thing of depth.
Probably the highlight of the record is the collective’s take on Jimmy Driftwood’s Tennessee Stud, but I’d exchange this version for the late lamented Johnny Cash‘s at the drop of a stetson. In a market rediscovering the joys of Cash’s canon through Walk The Line, The Little Willies will likely pick up some fans happy to hear competent, pleasant covers of classic material. But for all their individual talents and collective intentions, The Little Willies just don’t measure up to the greats they invoke.