What I Deserve
Kelly Willis turns in a masterwork for her fourth major-label full-length album, “What I Deserve.” This new CD reveals shadings of emotion and raw power combining with the sweetness native to this Austin woman’s extraordinary voice, proving she’s “an angel with hell-scorched wings.” Recorded and mixed over a three-year period when she didn’t have a record label to call home, tracks came from sessions in San Francisco and Austin with producer Dave McNair. Willis wrote or co-wrote half the songs here, plays guitar, and sings in that excellent voice of heartbreak, loneliness, despair, hope, love, and redemption. For example, there has seldom emerged a truer description of love’s reward than the Paul Kelly song “Cradle of Love.” Yet on the title track, she sings her own words, “The water on my hands are tears from long ago/ And my skin lets it in/ It’s always been too thin…”
Co-writers on the album with Willis include John Leventhal (Shawn Colvin) and Gary Louris (Golden Smog, Jayhawks). The sound always comforts and supplies surprises of the best kind. As Willis notes, “I’m just making music without any thought as to how it’s going to be labeled. I play country music — but it can be more than that in that it has appeal in a folk and a pop sense — and my country music can be completely different from someone else’s.”
Guest stars on the album include Chuck Prophet on electric guitar, John Dee Graham (Exene, John Doe, True Believers) on electric guitar and electric lap steel, Mark Spencer (Lisa Loeb, Blood Oranges, Cheri Knight) on acoustic and electric guitars, Michael Been (The Call) on bass, and many others. Particularly fine moments come when Willis sings a supremely sad love song, Nick Drake’s classic “Time Has Told Me.” When she sings, “A troubled cure/ For a troubled mind…Time has told me/ Not to ask for more/ Someday our ocean/ Will find its shore…” it could break one’s heart. Drake’s suicide after two stellar albums can be counted as one of rock’s low points.
Willis also renders Paul Westerberg’s “They’re Blind” with a gusto that betrays her love of the underdog; The ex-Replacements frontman’s work inspires her. “If someone can help romanticize your plight in life, more power to them,” she said recently. Yet on her own writing, as in “Not Long for This World,” Willis really shines. And in her interpretations of others’ songs, her own individual style shines through. For someone named one of People Magazine ‘s 50 most beautiful people in 1994, Willis puts a generous amount of substance with her style. It’s great to hear her back in top form.
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