Kelly Willis has been dubbed the Queen of Alternative Country in the popular press, but the title has always said more about mainstream country than it does about the singer. Truly, all that set her first three albums, recorded in Nashville for MCA between 1990 and 1993, apart from those of her contemporaries was their superior craft. Sounding little like the Uncle Tupelo and Lucinda Williams albums of the nascent alt-country scene at the time, Willis’s early albums simply illustrated that slick country records that drew heavily from both pop and rock styles could still be both smart and soulful. In their overall sound and in their often heady content, albums like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dwight Yoakam’s This Time followed in the same vein and Willis’s Bang Bang and her 1993 self-titled disc. But while Carpenter’s and Yoakam’s albums led to their greatest commercial successes, Willis remained a fringe artist. Add to the equation that she’s not only a gifted singer-songwriter but is also uncommonly gorgeous—People even named her one of its 50 Most Beautiful People—and the failure of Willis to capture a massive audience ranks as one of the Nashville’s most egregious mistakes.
The question that lingers, then, is what kind of career Willis would’ve had if she’d broken through. Because as deserving of crossover success as her early records were, it’s the albums she has recorded since leaving Nashville that have been her richest, most striking work. Fascinatingly, it’s her first album in five years (time she spent raising her four children with her husband, acclaimed singer-songwriter Bruce Robison), Translated From Love, that finds Willis finally embracing the breadth of that “alternative” tag with what is by far her most diverse collection. It’s an album that showcases Willis at her most confident, willing to tinker with her sound in some surprising ways and challenge herself as both a writer and vocalist.
Never have Willis’s choices of cover tunes been so inspired as they are on Translated From Love. The album opens with Damon Bramblett’s “Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon Anymore,” which uses clever imagery (“A big rotten egg trashing up the sky/A red-faced drunk with a hundred black eyes”) to decry the impulse to look back on former sources of pleasure with contempt, and closes with the title track by Steven Yerkey, which is as minimalist and low-key a composition as Willis has ever tackled. In between, she does a spirited, hard-edged cover of Iggy Pop’s “Success” that’s sure to raise some of her fans’ eyebrows and that serves as an ideal counterpoint to Big & Rich’s recent novelty cover of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Even better, though, is the first single, her take on Adam Green’s (formerly one-half of The Moldy Peaches) “Teddy Boys.” A song that producer Chuck Prophet presented to Willis, it gives her the opportunity to show off her strong Wanda Jackson-style rockabilly influence, and it gives Prophet the chance to incorporate a Moog synthesizer riff into a country record to great effect.
The songs that Willis co-wrote with Prophet and Jules Shear for the record are just as strong as the cover tunes. “Sweet Little One,” on which she implores, “Don’t you berate the sun/It’s only coming up/To keep from being down,” works because of the warmth of her voice. “Too Much To Lose,” in contrast, brings one of her most vulnerable deliveries as she observes, “You spit on my love along with everything else, but your kiss/Your kiss is a sweet thing,” with a tone that’s both bitter and desperate. When the individual songs are this well-written and compellingly performed, it’s only a minor complaint that the albums doesn’t necessarily tell a complete story or set a clear tone. While it lacks the thematic focus of its two predecessors (2002’s Easy and 1999’s extraordinary What I Deserve), Translated From Love compensates with its deliberate, measured quirk; it still has the depth her fans have come to expect, but it’s Willis’s coolest record yet.