By Jeff Burger
Various Artists, Willie Nile Uncovered. Forty years after the release of his debut album, Willie Nile still isn’t widely known, and neither are some of the most impressive artists on this two-disc tribute album. That fact underscores how easily fine musicians can get lost in the shuffle, though in the case of this rock singer/songwriter relative obscurity is at least partly a result of how sporadic his output has been. Music business legal troubles sidelined him for more than a decade after his first two LPs, and it’s only in recent years that he has been issuing albums on a regular basis. While the masses don’t know him, at any rate, he has plenty of admirers among his fellow musicians, more than two dozen of whom show up here.
Like most multi-artist collections, this one has its ups and downs, but there are plenty of the former, including a violin-spiced reading of “Les Champs Elysees” by the great Paris-based Elliott Murphy; “Vagabond Moon,” a folk-flavored version of an indelible rocker from Nile’s debut album by New York studio musician Kenny White; Richard Shindell’s predictably gripping take on “The Road to Calvary”; John Gorka’s melancholy reading of “I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore),” which Nile wrote with Danny Kortchmar; and the inimitable Nils Lofgren’s cover of “All God’s Children.”
Nearly all of the contributing artists bring something fresh to the material while remaining true to its spirit. The album will likely make you want to explore Nile’s recordings and also investigate some of the folks who cover them here.
Greg Copeland, The Tango Bar. While many years have passed between some albums by Willie Nile, he has been downright prolific by comparison with Southern California’s Greg Copeland.
Copeland had early success as a composer, cowriting “Buy for Me the Rain,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1967 pop hit, with Steve Noonan; and collaborating with his high school friend Jackson Browne on such songs as “The Fairest of the Seasons,” which appeared the same year on Nico’s Chelsea Girl LP. But Copeland didn’t release an album of his own until 1982, when he issued the Browne-produced Revenge Will Come; and though that album garnered critical acclaim, Copeland didn’t foresee enough success to put food on the table, so he walked away from music and ultimately became an attorney. His sophomore LP, Diana and James, didn’t show up until 2008; and now, 12 years later at age 74, he has gotten around to delivering record number three. “It takes me a while to see what’s real in a song,” he says, “and to accumulate a group of songs that sound like an album.”
The Tango Bar indeed sounds like an album, and a very good one. The contemplative compositions—all by Copeland, though he had cowriters for two of them—are melodic and poetic, and the atmospheric, understated performances, which prominently feature piano and guitar, are consistently amiable. Copeland’s weathered voice enlivens five of the tracks, such as the appropriately brooding “Lou Reed” and the accordion-flavored “Let Him Dream”; but elsewhere he cedes centerstage to a couple of terrific female vocalists—Caitlin Canty and Inara George (daughter of the late Little Feat leader Lowell George).
Canty’s “Better Now” and George’s “I’ll Be Your Sunny Day” are particularly wonderful. Interestingly, given Copeland’s Nico connection and Reed tribute, both of these songs convey a combination of sweetness and sadness that reminds me a bit of Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “After Hours.”
Juni Ata, Saudade. The second I finished playing this album, I went straight back to the beginning and played it again—always a good sign. Ata (real name: Jesse Daniel Edwards)—who has worked with such artists as Morrissey and Lucinda Williams—has reportedly been writing songs for years with no intention of ever recording them. Good thing his friend Jake Rosswog (who became his producer and arranger) helped change his mind about that.
Ata’s complex melodies, emotional lyrics, and distinctive vocals add up to a mesmerizing package on the well-named Saudade—a Portuguese word that means “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing.” Many of the songs effectively feature strings and brass but “Hard Letting You Down Easy,” with just piano, serves as a reminder that Ata’s voice is the most powerful instrument here. The lush arrangements and lyrical focus are among the elements that make me think of acts like Jack’s Mannequin and the lesser-known Modern Love Child, but nobody sounds quite like Ata.
Colter Wall, Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but Colter Wall clearly left his a little farther inland, perhaps at a rodeo in a Wyoming prairie town. Featuring his sturdy baritone and a backup band that employs pedal steel, dobro, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and drums, the Canadian-born singer performs classic- and classic-sounding western and cowboy music that recalls artists like Marty Robbins and Sons of the Pioneers.
The program on this self-produced third album includes six Wall originals, among them the title track, an ode to the genre; the upbeat “Rocky Mountain Rangers”; the tongue-in-cheek “Talkin’ Prairie Boy”; and a moody ballad called “Houlihans at the Holiday Inn.” They fit right in alongside covers of Robbins’s “Big Iron,” “Cowpoke” from Stan Jones (who is best known for “Ghost Riders in the Sky”), and the traditional “Diamond Joe” and “I Ride an Old Paint/Leavin’ Cheyenne.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.