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It has taken the Little Willies six years to follow up its self-titled debut with “For The Good Times,” but the quintet, fronted by Norah Jones, has only improved with age.
The band name is, of course, a slightly naughty moniker, but the official explanation is that it comes from the members’ unabashed adoration for all things Willie Nelson, and his compadres...And let’s face it, the Little Merles wouldn’t have provided the same giggle value.
Jones and her bandmates here —bassist Lee Alexander, guitarist Jim Campilongo, guitarist/vocalist Richard Julian and drummer Dan Rieser — tuck into a dozen or so country classics on the Jan. 10 release, most of them at least 40 years old, including Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times.” They don’t limit their selections to familiar tracks; they also delve deep into some fairly obscure tunes, among them a delightfully fun, trucker theme, “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” and an inventive interpretation of the spookily funny “Foul Owl on the Prowl” from the “In The Heat of the Night” soundtrack.
There’s a relaxed, nothing-to-prove vibe that permeates the whole project, with the quintet feeling no compulsion to rejigger a song that works better when they remain faithful to the original. Similarly, they seem to feel no tremendous loyalty to the original if they feel like shaking it up a bit.
No one seems more relaxed than Jones, who splits lead vocal chores with Julian (who sounds a lot like Lyle Lovett). With the weight of carrying the entire project off her shoulders, Jones delivers knock-out performances whether it’s singing lead on the lovely “Remember Me” or on the feisty “ Fist City.”
Some of the best moments are where Julian takes the lead and Jones is very content to play second fiddle, such as on the lively, chugging remake of Johnny Cash’s “Wide Open Road” or on the mid-tempo “Lovesick Blues,” where Jones’ harmonies wrap around Julian’s voice like a warm fire on a cold night.
Additionally, there’s a confidence the pickers display that lets them be quiet and allow the lyrics to sink in, such as on the Willie Nelson-penned “Permanently Lonely,” which is quietly devastating in its damnation of a callous lover. There is, thankfully, no attempt to gussy up the arrangements with modern technology and the production is crystal clear on every song, especially highlighting Rieser’s powerful, yet understated drumming, and Campilongo’s dazzling, but never show-offy, guitar work. The one original, Campilongo’s largely instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” fits right in.
Though fans of Jones’ jazzy solo albums may find The Little Willies a tad too twangy for their taste, fans of great musicianship will find plenty to enjoy on “For The Good Times.”
Follow me on Twitter @HitFixMelinda