My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Mas Palermo

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Kelly Willis’

kelly willisKelly’s third and final album for MCA was released in 1993. Tony Brown produced as before, but was joined by rock producer Don Was, and the overall sound is just a little rockier, but the record served up much the same recipe of brightly delivered country-rock as its predecessors, and met a similar fate commercially.

The singles were the breezy ‘Whatever Way The Wind Blows’ and a bouncy cover of the Kendalls’ ‘Heaven’s Just A Sin Away’. They should both have done better, as they have an infectious charm which one would think was very radio friendly.

The rueful Jim Lauderdale song ‘I Know Better Now’, about learning from bitter experience, is an excellent song, sung very well. ‘Up All Night’, written by Libby Dwyer is also pretty good, about a failing relationship which is as good as over.

My favourite track, however, is one of the few slower moments, the lovely ballad ‘That’ll Be Me’, a tender duet with singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, who wrote the song. The downbeat ‘World Without You’ (written by Kelly with Paul Kennerley) is also very good

‘Take It All Out On You’ is a cheerful mid-tempo love song which was somewhat ironically written by Kelly’s ex Mas Palermo and her new love interest (and now her husband) Bruce Robison. It’s fairly typical of her style at this period, with a chugging groove and a bright vocal. But you can’t help wondering about how the conversation went in the writing room.

‘One More Night’ is a chugging rocker written by Palermo with Bruce’s brother Charlie; it’s not bad but the production is a little heavy for my taste. ‘Get Real’ and ‘Shadows Of Love’ were written by Kelly with John Leventhal, but unfortunately neither is very interesting.

You can get used copies fairly cheaply, so if you enjoy a little rockier edge to your country, this is a good bet.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Bang Bang’

KellyWillisBangBangThe early 1990s were an interesting time for Kelly Willis. Razor X, in his review of her debut, motioned that Willis was signed to MCA in 1989 in an effort to expand the definition of country music. In accordance with her musical output at the time, MCA also went all out with a marketing campaign that saw Willis gaining national exposure both on news magazines and in movies, where she scored bit parts.

While the efforts at maximizing her exposure were well received, Willis never really caught on with the mainstream nor was she able to sell many records. That being said, MCA continued to try and her sophomore album Bang Bang was released just a year after Well Traveled Love. Produced once again by Tony Brown, the album contained a variety of songs from a mix of both left of center and mainstream songwriters.

For the album’s lead single, MCA went with “Baby Take A Piece of My Heart,” an excellent uptempo tune Willis co-wrote with Kostas, a male songwriter who was in high demand at the time. The tune, which peaked at #58, is Willis’ only charting song from her tenure with MCA and easily her best known single from this period of her career.

The second and third singles failed to chart. Kostas and Willis’ husband Mas Palermo co-wrote “The Heart That Love Forgot,” a mid-tempo guitar and drum centric number that is more Texas than Nashville country. Texas country singer/songwriter Joe Ely self-penned “Settle For Love,” an upbeat rocker that perfectly showcases Willis’ biting twang. While both are excellent songs, neither was in line with the radio trends of the era making it unsurprising they didn’t catch on.

The remainder of Bang Bang features mostly uptempo rockers that are heavy on drums, and while light on commercial country, are excellent just the same. “I’ll Try Again” is a honky-tonk rocker while “Too Much To Ask” and “Standing By The River” borrow from Gram Parsons’ signature style. The title track rocks just as hard although Brown smartly adds steel and electric guitars to give it needed spice.

My main complaint with Bang Bang lies with Brown’s production. His slick arrangements drown Willis’ distinctive voice when they should’ve been highlighting it instead. Problem is, as evidenced by “Sincerely (Too Late to Turn Back Now),” Willis hadn’t yet found voice as an artist. As good as the Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen ballad is, her vocal isn’t nearly as confident as it would be if she recorded it today. The same is true for the sinister “Not Afraid of the Dark,” which seems out of place in comparison to the rest of the album.

Those concerns are elevated on “Hidden Things,” which proves she was already a gifted vocalist in 1991, and while she might not have completely understood how to best use her talents, she could turn in a stellar performance if given the right vehicle. Unlike the majority of the Bang Bang Brown’s production actually aids the track and frames her quite nicely.

It’s always a pleasure to go back and listen to early music from gifted artists, especially recordings made before they found their authentic voice within the industry. In the twenty-three years since Bang Bang it’s remarkable how much Willis has grown which is even more astonishing given that she was a knockout vocalist back then, too. This might not be the most essential album in her collection but it provides a fine listening experience and comes recommended for those looking to fully understand Willis as an artist.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Well Travelled Love’

welltravelledloveDuring the second half of the 1980s, MCA Records signed a handful of roots-based artists that were considered to be outside of the mainstream, in the hopes of expanding the definition of country music. Artists such as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith were all signed to the label during that time. Kelly Willis, who joined the label in 1989 with the aid of Lovett and Griffith, somewhat falls into this fringe category, although her music was always much closer to the mainstream than the others mentioned. To further put things into context: Hat Acts were the popular trend in country music at the time, and most of the female artists who came to dominate the era — Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood — had not yet been signed to record deals. Reba McEntire, who was the marquee name female artist at MCA had yet to enjoy her first million-seller.

Willis’ debut disc, Well Travelled Love, if released today, would be relegated to the Americana category, but in 1990 it was considered a somewhat left-of-center country effort, perhaps in part due to Kelly’s slightly quirky vocal style, but also due to songs written by the likes of John Hiatt, Steve Earle and Kevin Welch, although more mainstream songwriters such as Paul Kennerley and Emory Gordy, Jr. are also represented. Willis’ then-husband Mas Palermo wrote about half the album’s songs. Paul Kennerley’s excellent and retro-sounding “I Don’t Want To Love You (But I Do)” was the album’s first single, that sadly failed to chart. A similar fate befell “River of Love”, which may have been too rockabilly for country radio’s taste at the time and “Looking For Someone Like You” likewise failed to gain any traction at radio.

Although I like all of these songs, I believe that some of the album’s other songs would have been better choices for singles. First and foremost is the Monte Warden and Emory Gordy, Jr. tune “One More Time”, a beautiful and steel-guitar drenched ballad that should have been considered very radio friendly at the time. Not releasing John Hiatt’s “Drive South” as a single seems like a missed opportunity; Suzy Bogguss took it all the way to #2 just two years later.
The title track, another Mas Palermo number, reminds me of “I’m In Love All Over”, the opening track to Reba McEntire’s Have I Got A Deal For You album. It’s an upbeat number with some excellent guitar picking and a strong vocal peformance from Kelly — the type of song that would perhaps work better in concert than on radio. “I’m Just Lonely”, Willis’ only songwriting contribution to the album (a co-write with Palermo) is also one of my favorites.

That an unsuccessful album by a largely unknown artist is available at all nearly a quarter century after its release is something of a minor miracle. Don’t expect to find any cheap used copies; Well Travelled Love can still be purchased on CD but at prices that will put a dent in your wallet. It is, however, available for download at much more reasonable prices and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A