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Kelly Willis' "Easy" - A Review

By David Okamoto, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – [Track 1: "If I Left You"]

Broken hearts have fueled many great country songs - but Kelly Willis is more interested in singing about weak knees, forced smiles and clenched fists.

The 33-year-old Austin artist knows that overcoming heartache is only half the battle - that self doubt, cynicism and anger often linger after the last tear has dried. Those complex themes permeate Willis' latest album called Easy, a title rife with interpretations since dealing with these feelings - as a singer and a human - is anything but.

And yet Willis, who became a mother last year, has never sounded so at ease. Notoriously uncomfortable with promotional glad-handing and magazine-cover makeovers, the strawberry-blond, honey-voiced singer was courted by MCA Records 12 years ago as the last hope among a roster of talented Texans including Nanci Griffith and Joe Ely who never retro-fit into country music's manicured mold. She was dropped by MCA in 1994 and then by A&M two years later. But she took the rejections as signs rather than slights. Retreating home to Austin, she married longtime boyfriend Bruce Robison, started writing more of her own songs, and then publicly collected herself on 1999's aptly titled What I Deserve.

On Easy, the mood is warm and unassuming, exuding an intoxicating intimacy that echoes the living-room feel of Robison's recent Country Sunshine CD.

[Track 5: "Getting to Me"]

The acoustic arrangements, driven by Mark Spencer, Lloyd Maines and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, are tasteful but rarely accelerate beyond midtempo, which may test the patience of fans used to such rollicking hits as "Whatever Way the Wind Blows" and "Take Me Down."

But the careful listener will notice that the softer setting emphasizes the crinkles of maturity that have seeped into Willis' voice. Once a roof raiser who knew just when to throw in a honky-tonk hiccup or a soul-music tremble, she has learned how to deliver a lyric from the inside out, burrowing under the words to uncover deep meanings in the simplest of phrases. When she sings "good things were meant for me" in a lullaby called Reason to Believe, she's not bragging so much as realizing. And on "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim," written by the late British songwriter Kirsty MacColl, Willis recites a litany of telltale Lothario signs with a goal of putting a new suitor in his place. But as she sizes him up, she's also hoping she's reading him wrong.

[Track 6: "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim"]

Kelly Willis' new album may not be made for road trips and roadhouses. But when it comes to reflecting her true sound and soul, Easy does it.

[Track 10: "Reason to Believe"]

 

David Okamoto is the senior producer of entertainment at Yahoo Broadcast and a contributing editor to ICE magazine.