1:29pm

Tue January 17, 2012
Country/Americana

The Little Willies: For The Wrenching 'Good Times'

It's been six years since The Little Willies released an eponymous debut album. The New York City band is best known as a side project of Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones, along with singer Richard Julian, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Rieser. All accomplished musicians with their own careers, they've now released a second album titled For the Good Times — simply because, they say, they missed playing together.

For an album called For the Good Times, The Little Willies' members fill it up with wrenching material. These five friends started getting together in 2003 on a casual basis to play honky-tonk, outlaw country and Western swing favorites. On this new release, they often veer toward themes of unrelenting dissatisfaction and cheating hearts, portrayed in songs like "I Worship You" by the Stanley Brothers.

A large part of The Little Willies' magic lies in chemistry. Julian's voice provides a nice counterpoint to Jones' jazzy inflection, while guitarist Campilongo's string-bending wizardry crests spectacularly before diving back into the ensemble.

The Little Willies' members clearly possess a great love for all sorts of country music, but their approach doesn't always work. Some of these songs left me pining for a grittier and less pretty interpretation. They're most successful when they tackle upbeat Western swing, or ballads that complement the gentle beauty of Jones' voice. But the band members' disparate musical backgrounds and impressive creativity also lend themselves well to turning listeners on to obscure cover tunes, like the oddball pick "Fowl Owl on the Prowl," written by Quincy Jones for the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night.

The Little Willies' music doesn't ache like Hank Williams, or exude Loretta Lynn's feisty nature, though both artists are covered on this album. What they bring to these classic tunes is an extraordinary marriage of relaxed camaraderie and technical excellence. They're all incredible players, but they're also just a bunch of friends who are in it for each other, and for the sake of the songs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Little Willies is the name of the country music side project from singer Norah Jones. The group has just released its second album called "For the Good Times."

Critic Meredith Ochs has our review.

MEREDITH OCHS: For an album called "For the Good Times," Little Willies fill it up with some heart-wrenching material. These five friends started getting together in 2003 on a casual basis to play honky-tonk, outlaw country and Western swing favorites. But on this new release, they often veer toward themes of unrelenting dissatisfaction and cheating hearts, portrayed in songs like this one by the Stanley Brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WORSHIP YOU")

THE LITTLE WILLIES: (Singing) I worship you and the things you do, still you're not satisfied. I paid the cost. I've loved, I've lost. But still I worship you.

OCHS: A large part of The Little Willies' magic is their chemistry as a band. Richard Julian's voice provides a nice counterpoint to Norah Jones' jazzy inflection. And guitarist Jim Campilongo's string-bending wizardry crests spectacularly before diving back into the ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIDE OPEN ROAD")

WILLIES: (Singing) Well, the reason I was looking for you all over town was to tell you that your kitty cat was still around. And you left your diamond ring when you walked down that wide open road. Well, if you're going to stay away, honey, you got to let me know how to cook hot biscuits, how to roll the dough. Everything has gone crazy since told you to go down that wide open road.

OCHS: The Little Willies clearly have a great love for all sorts of country music, but their approach doesn't always work. Some of these songs left me pining for a less pretty and more gritty interpretation. They're most successful when they tackle upbeat Western swing, or ballads that compliment the gentle beauty of Norah Jones' voice.

But the band members' impressive creativity also lends itself well to obscure cover tunes, like this oddball pick, written by Quincy Jones for the 1967 film "In the Heat of the Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOWL ON THE PROWL")

WILLIES: (Singing) If you hear him hoot, scoot. If you pass his tree, flee. If you catch his eye, fly. Don't wait to say goodbye. He's got a yearn for pretty little hens. Fowl owl on the prowl. He's hungry for a chick, so get home quick. Fowl owl on the prowl...

OCHS: So, the Little Willies don't ache like Hank Williams, or possess Loretta Lynn's feisty nature, though they cover both artists on this CD. What they bring to these classic tunes is an extraordinary marriage of relaxed camaraderie and technical excellence. They're all incredible players, but they're also just a bunch of friends who are in it for each other, and for the sake of the songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLENE")

WILLIES: (Singing) Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene...

CORNISH: The new album from The Little Willies is called "For the Good Times." You can hear two songs from the album at NPRMusic.org.

Reviewer Meredith Ochs is a DJ and talk show host with Sirius XM Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLENE")

WILLIES: (Singing) Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene, please don't take him just because you can... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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