The opening “Heartaches by the Numbers” is fairly good, and the follow-up “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” has decent pedal steel (from The Time Jumpers). From there, though, there is nothing but varying degrees of schmaltz. The cloying orchestration by Bergen White is really too much. And often the orchestration is pointless too, as on “Faded Love,” where there is an orchestra introduction that drops off and does not return. It is as if the label paid for the orchestra in advance and felt like they needed to get their money’s worth. Take a hard pass on this one.
As he has aged, Willie Nelson’s music has stayed fairly mellow. It Always Will Be is a solid effort, nowhere near his best, but decent for this part of his career. Its consistent fault is that producer James Stroud gives the music too much spit and polish. A little grit and gravel would have helped this along tremendously. Although it bears mentioning that breaking from the mellow tone of the rest of the album with the utterly ridiculous modern southern rock of “Midnight Rider” is brazenly stupid.
Here’s an album that occupies a strange place between “urban cowboy” country and easy listening pop. Hag and Willie both sing really nicely, even if most of the material is pretty fluffy. The synthesizer, electric bass, trebly electric guitar and other little orchestrated touches bestow on it a dated, faddish sound that is unmistakably of its era, but, for what it is, it delivers fairly consistently. The slickness isn’t too much of a distraction. There aren’t any obvious stinkers here. As a long as expectations aren’t too high, this is a nice light outing. The best song is probably “Opportunity to Cry,” which has no discernible input from Haggard.
If you have followed Willie Nelson’s later career — and before his surprise hit Band of Brothers you probably haven’t — he has continued to shuffle between styles. The occasional effort sounds a little more contemporary, but plenty look back to old-time western swing and early 20th Century pop, and sometimes jazz. Let’s Face the Music and Dance is a grab bag. The title track is an easy listening version of the sound from arguably Willie’s best late-career album, the austere Tex-Mex album Spirit. “Is the Better Part Over” is yet another re-visitation of one of his old songs (from the late 1980s effort A Horse Called Music). Most of the standards here seem to build on his American Classic, but with his regular touring band providing more country flavor than the jazz combos of that earlier effort. Not surprisingly, the best here is “You’ll Never Know,” with Willie’s not-so-secret weapon his sister Bobbie featured prominently on piano. This one is par for the course for Willie’s august years and hardly a standout, but it is more proof, if any more was needed, that he’s still not finished yet.
Me & Paul is largely a collection of old songs, many of which Willie had recorded before. If the late 1980s were a low point of his long career, then this album is at least the best of his worst period. There are hints here of a rambling man who once took country and rock music in both hands and cut them together, traits that were largely erased from his recordings that increasingly gravitated toward easy listening and pop sensibilities. Granted, the flat, sterile 80s production values harm the songs more than they help — every re-recording here is inferior to the older one(s). Anyone already a Nelson fan will find this mildly enjoyable, even if it won’t be the Nelson album they reach for most often, though the “presentable” slickness of these recordings won’t win many new converts to Nelson who shone brightest when he went just a little more against the grain.
The Promiseland is mostly easy listening pop with a country touch, and side two is easy listening western swing. Nothing is bad, exactly, it just sort of passes by without making any sort of impression, good or bad. The late 1980s were in some ways the nadir of Willie Nelson’s recording career. His vocals were lazy and the instrumental accompaniment was formulaic. The Promiseland exemplifies those tedious qualities of this part of Willie’s career, as he was caught up in fame and not particularly focused on his music — soon enough troubles with the taxman would compound the distractions he faced. Compare this album to The Sound in Your Mind, from a decade prior, which features some of Willie’s very best vocals. Earlier he sung in a way that used the songs to express something deeper. On The Promiseland, he is just singing what is written down, technically hitting all the notes but delivering them all in the same way (often using the same consistently off-key approach to singing), like he hasn’t stopped to consider at all what each song is meant to convey. He sings like he’s on a factory assembly line. Charlie Chaplin made the monotony of assembly line work the epitome of hilarity in Modern Times, capturing the degrading, back-breaking toll it takes, but Willie seems to be using such an approach here merely because it is the path of least resistance. It adds nothing to the music, and actually probably prevents the music from ever being really compelling.
Whenever the olympics are happening, a friend of mine — with clockwork reliability — laments all the “judged” sports. He likes events that are timed, or that assess who crosses the finish line first, and so forth. He despises the way gymnastics and figure skating rely on the whims of judges to rate performances. And he especially hates judged events that multiply a subjective vote against a “degree of difficulty” factor. To him, this results in a lot of botched performances of difficult routines beating out the flawless execution of purportedly less challenging ones. If you are like my friend, you might want to stop reading right now.
Django and Jimmie takes the very commercial sound Willie has been pursuing on his last few Columbia albums, as his touring band has started to die off (literally), and injects a sense of “classic” country tone, rather than being something that tries to go off the map and be “indie” or just a side-project or something, and also does not just adopt boring fads (Band of Brothers, Heroes) without a fight. There are far fewer parallels to Haggard’s recent career. This not the best thing either Nelson or Haggard has done, not by a long shot, but it seems like it deserves marks for having a high “degree of difficulty”. As Slavoj Žižek wrote about Greek acceptance of a brutal financial austerity program in the summer of 2015, “To persist in such a difficult situation and not to leave the field is true courage.” For Willie and Hag, at a late stage in both their careers, to persist in trying to make interesting music in the face of their capitulation to the demands of commercial country music is a stroke of magic, and, if nothing else, courageous. In a way, this is “middlebrow” music that manages, against the odds, to maintain some appeal to the now highbrow (!) “classic country” sensibility.
Although these two veteran performers’ voices may not be what they once were — Haggard’s voice has a much diminished range and is now indeed “haggard” — they benefit from state-of-the-art recording and a crack studio band. Actually, Willie has hardly sounded better on record since the year 2000.
The album’s title refers to two of their musical heroes of yesteryear: Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. Yet the sound of these recordings is very contemporary. Jamey Johnson provides a guest vocal, and his own solo recordings mark a decent reference point for the sonic predilections of Django and Jimmie.
This is perhaps the duo’s strongest collaboration yet. From a strong reading of Bob Dylan‘s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” to a sturdy new recording of Haggard’s “Swinging Doors” to the intriguing new song co-written by Nelson and Buddy Cannon, “Driving the Herd,” to a Johnny Cash tribute, this album covers a lot of territory. The effortlessness in which it looks back and forges ahead with a contemporary sheen is a big part of what makes this music so courageous. Not for a second is there a doubt that the contemporary and the bygone can exist together seamlessly.
Willie Nelson and his sister Bobbie have been performing together their entire lives. Bobbie has always been a rock of consistently complimentary playing. Many of Willie’s finest recordings feature her prominently. December Day, though, is a goof. The two regularly play on their tour bus, and this album is meant to document the way they play together on that tour bus, away from their fans. Unfortunately, that results in an album that sounds like a bunch of performers who have played these songs a few hundred times too many noodling about trying to entertain themselves with arbitrary variations from their usual public performance styles. This amounts to a bunch of hi-fidelity demo recordings of uncertain value. December Day only serves to reinforce how much better these two have performed these songs elsewhere. The best here is the rendition of “Permanently Lonely.”
Two Men With the Blues pairs Willie Nelson with Wynton Marsalis at two live appearances at The Allen Room, Lincoln Center, New York City, where Marsalis is musical director. Willie has always demonstrated a fondness for jazz, and he has recorded in that setting before, so an outing backed by a jazz combo for some bluesy vocal jazz-pop is well within his range. He doesn’t have to reach for any of this. Although Willie just does his usual thing, it happens to suit the music fine. The only thing Marsalis and his band bring to the table is endless showboating. But the problem is the showboating isn’t very impressive (perhaps only appearing so to the jazz novice). It’s actually Willie Nelson on guitar who brings more adventurousness to bear, with much more affinity for dissonant chords than Marsalis’ hard-bop puritanism permits. Perhaps more time playing together would have allowed a better rapport amongst the musicians. As it stands, this is adequate, but falls well short on creativity. A pairing of Nelson with someone like saxophonist James Carter might be more interesting.
In the 1980s, Willie Nelson released a lot of albums. So many that most are forgotten. Angel Eyes from 1984 was recorded at his own Pedernales studio and pairs him with a jazz combo led by guitarist Jackie King (who receives special billing on the album jacket). Ray Charles does a guest vocal. King and his band play a rather straightforward post-bop music. King had connections to a lot of country artists. His style is akin to Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, or even Jim Hall, with a very clean tone and little inclination to play chords. Willie sticks almost exclusively to vocals. He is a competent jazz vocalist (and guitarist, as collaborations with Wynton Marsalis attest, though you wouldn’t know from this recording). He would go on to record many jazz albums. Here, his performances are nice but not particularly compelling. This is less of a snooze-fest than Willie’s easy listening and light pop albums of the era (Stardust, City of New Orleans) but it is also not ambitious enough to garner much attention. Yet Nelson fans should perhaps give this a bit more credit than it has tended to receive, because it has a much more authentic and intimate improvisational feel than certain others of Nelson’s forays into jazz. This belongs in the top half of the large batch of curious but insignificant genre exercises that Nelson has recorded in his long career.