Friday, January 9, 2015

Willie Nile: “If I Was A River” (2014) CD Review

Willie Nile’s latest release, If I Was A River, is quite a bit different from his previous release, 2013’s American Ride. While that one features some really good rock and roll, this new album is more stripped down, with the focus on Willie Nile’s vocals and piano. It’s like he started with the emotional core or essence of a song, and realized nothing else was needed, and the results are excellent. This isn’t a completely new approach for Willie Nile, as he’s included tracks like these on earlier releases (for example, “The Crossing,” from American Ride). But this time the album as a whole is approached that way. Not that this is a solo effort. He is joined on many tracks by Steuart Smith on guitar, bass, organ and backing vocals; David Mansfield on mandolin, acoustic guitar, violin and viola; and Frankie Lee on backing vocals.

All of the songs on If I Was A River are original, written or co-written by Willie Nile. And yes, I do have to mention that the title should be If I Were A River, but I suppose we can’t always expect songwriters and musicians to use proper grammar. And that’s about the only criticism I have. This is an excellent group of songs, and I am just more and more impressed by Willie Nile’s work.

If I Was A River opens with its title track, a gorgeous, emotional, heartfelt offering. Willie Nile’s vocals are so moving on this track, with just the right amount of strain. This isn’t a smooth love song, but one that feels lived in, and lived in for years. It’s not a song of the moment, but rather one of a complete life. “If I Was A River” was written by Willie Nile and Frankie Lee. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “If I was a mountain I’d stand by your side/I would be there in the dark, a place where you could hide/I would guard you from the storm, and my path would be your guide.” I also really like these lines: “If was a forest I would bow down my head/I would stand back in the shadows and let you go instead/I would offer you some shade, I would offer you my bed.”

Willie Nile follows that track with “Lost,” which also is quite moving. There is so much passion in both his voice and his piano-playing. This is a song that got right on top of me and blocked out other sounds, blocked out the rest of the world. It’s a track you can become involved in, even lost in – that is, the emotions of the piece envelop you, until they become yours as well. You feel as alone and forlorn as the person from whose perspective the song is told. “Clouds roll in, I can see the boats go by/Through the din I can year the seabirds cry/Don’t know why these waves get so high without you.” This is a seriously excellent track.

“Song Of A Soldier” has the feel of one of those wonderfully sad Irish ballads. While the focus is still on the vocals and piano, this song also features some sweet work on mandolin and violin. This one was written by Willie Nile and Frankie Lee. “I have lived my life but as a soldier/I have seen the flash of bomb and gun/Though as yet I stand my only fortune/Is to love, yes just to love.”

“Lullaby Loon” is a fun, kind of silly song, in which Willie rips on the various genres in music, while keeping things bright and moving on piano. It opens with the lines “Rock and roll is a crock of shit/The boys in the band are full of it,” and later goes on to say, “Jazz is just like water on the brain/The classics are for the criminally insane/To hear the blues is to be in pain.” And the chorus is one you’ll find yourself joyfully singing along to, in which he sings of his true love waiting for him. I love the humor of this song. And to show you it’s all a bit of fun, Willie actually laughs at the end of the track.

Another song that I love is “I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore),” with lines like “Your beauty walks a tightrope high above the bedroom floor.” Nice, right? Perhaps this song speaks to me because lately I’ve been feeling a bit older, and this song addresses that feeling and some of those glances backward that seem to occur more often. “But sometimes late at night when I hear the old songs play/I hear your voice and see your smile like it was yesterday/But that was then and this is now, been down that road before/Yeah, that was then and this is now, that boat has left the shore/And I can’t do crazy, I can’t do crazy, I can’t do crazy anymore.” “I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore)” was written by Willie Nile and Danny Kortchmar.

“Goin’ To St. Louis” is probably the sweetest, prettiest song of the album. It has such a great feel to it, and is likely to raise your spirits. It has an attractive innocence, with lines like “I’m going to St. Louis just to walk my baby home/And to hold her in my arms so happily.” There is even an excited, whispered “Yeah” after the line “Just to take her from this state of misery,” which is utterly delightful.

The album opened with “If I Was A River,” and it closes with “Let Me Be The River.” The two songs work really well together, both functioning as promises or prayers. They are songs full of hope and love. In “Let Me Be The River,” Willie Nile sings, “May an angel sing you off to sleep/When your days are dark and your nights are long/Let me be the river that you sail away on.”

CD Track List
  1. If I Was A River
  2. Lost
  3. Song Of A Soldier
  4. Once In A Lullaby
  5. Lullaby Loon
  6. Gloryland
  7. I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore)
  8. Goin’ To St. Louis
  9. The One You Used To Love
  10. Let Me Be The River
If I Was A River was released on November 11, 2014 on River House Records.

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