The Little Willies play the type of country western music approved by that clueless goofball in the picante sauce commercials who likes his salsa from New York City. Purists beware! Fronted by Norah Jones, The Little Willies are harmless in every sense of the word: even the band’s Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson covers are spit-shined for the 10 million consumers who purchased Jones’s debut. There are few surprises on The Little Willies’ eponymous debut, a Starbucks-ready record if ever there was one, but, come on, you’ve got to be one miserable, cynical, hateful son of a bitch to dislike Norah Jones. Her soft, breathy delivery may make her the poor man’s Eva Cassidy, but it’s also tough to resist.
The song choices range from the beloved to the canonical. The Little Willies’ namesake Nelson is represented twice, and he’s in good company, alongside Hank Williams, Fred Rose, and songs made popular by Elvis (“Love Me”) and Gram Parsons (“Streets Of Baltimore”). The arrangements are subtle—some may say soulless—but reverent. Of course, no one will ever confuse The Little Willies with even the weakest album recorded in Bakersfield, California, but therein lies the record’s effortless “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” charm. Although Jim Campilongo is a hell of a guitarist and his soloing is the album’s secret weapon (particularly the fade-out on “Gotta Get Drunk”), Jones predictably steals the show.
Of course, one wonders that if you had such a talented and universally acclaimed vocalist as Ms. Jones, why would The Little Willies devote so much lead-vocal time to Lyle Lovett-wannabe Richard Julian? Jones has always stood her own with others’ songs, be it Duke Ellington or Tom Waits or Roxy Music, but Julian gets in way over his head with Hank Williams’s “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” and Gram Parson’s “The Streets Of Baltimore.” Keep your finger on the skip button. As for The Little Willies’ original tunes, the unfortunate “Lou Reed” closes out the record (“We can’t say what we been sippin’, but we just saw Lou Reed cow-tippin’”), but bassist Lee Alexander’s “Roll On” is as fine as any of his contributions to Jones’s previous releases. Sweet and effortless, it’s the album’s highlight. There will no doubt be finer country albums released this year, but there may not be one as irresistible as this one.