What I Deserve
It's been a good decade since Austinites began predicting stardom for Kelly Willis. Even within the context of her late '80s roots-rock band Radio Ranch, it seemed obvious that anyone with such angelic beauty and honey-soaked pipes was a can't-miss proposition.
Despite many false alarms (a song in Thelma & Louise, an appearance in Bob Roberts and dubious tabloid hints about a fling with Lyle Lovett), fame still hasn't knocked on Willis' door. It might have something to do with the fact that Willis' admirable resistance to cutesy upbeat fare has long made her a misfit amongst the hacks who boot scoot their way onto The Nashville Network. You could also say that she was too far ahead of the curve, emerging before the alt-country, No Depression hype parade got rolling in earnest (not that this "movement" has actually provided big record sales for anyone).
But the real reason that Willis has been juggled from label to label with little return is simply that, despite her luscious voice and unerring sense of craftsmanship, her albums have been a bit bland. As a songwriter, Willis possesses a solid command of form, but never does anything particularly interesting with it. Inevitably, the highlights of her records have been covers of vintage laments ("Heaven's Just a Sin Away") or contemporary tunes by people like Marshall Crenshaw. The overall effect, as with too much alt-country stuff, has been of great respect for tradition but little sense of how to do anything new or interesting with it.
For her new release, What I Deserve, Willis took the Aimee Mann approach, recording without a record deal and subsequently shopping the finished product. The results are hardly a major departure from Willis' established pattern, but subtle differences do emerge.
On this album, more than ever, Willis presents herself as a mature singer-songwriter, in the mold of people like Paul Kelly and Paul Westerberg (both of whom she covers here), not limited by country conventions but instinctively drawn to them.
As usual, her choice of material (and collaborators) is impeccable. Westerberg's "They're Blind" and Nick Drake's "Time Has Told Me" are both overlooked gems that she invests with great respect and a dollop of twang, but in neither case does she take you to the emotional heights that the original did. At times like this, Willis reminds you of Linda Ronstadt in her country-tinged mid-'70s period, smartly exhuming excellent songs but finding nothing to add but technique.
Willis' weakness remains that she's too predictable, too effortlessly accomplished to move you the way all her big influences did. She's a model of consistency, an artist who never makes a false move simply because she never takes a risk. What I Deserve won't make a star of Willis, but it's another solid effort from someone who knows no other kind.
Back Tuva Future
Imagine Popeye the Sailor gargling as he sings in the shower, and you'll have a good idea of the timbre of Ondar's voice.
In his native Tuva, which sits on the border of Russia and Mongolia, such a sound is considered a thing of beauty. Western ears (at least those that don't regard the voices of Captain Beefheart or Bob Dylan as beautiful) might need some convincing about the aesthetics of his voice.
The things he can do with that voice are another thing entirely. Ondar (pronounced OWN-dar) can sing multiple notes simultaneously by producing overtones with his voice. The sounds--varying from a high bagpipe whistle to a pulsing jaw-harp bellow--seem electronically generated, but they all come from his unaided voice box. (For ethnomusicology freaks, the liner notes and a "hidden" track offer descriptions and examples of Tuva's three major traditional throat-singing styles.)
Ondar hails from a land where the Mongols, the original cowboys, roamed, making this East-meets-country-and-western project sort of a natural. Bassist-producer David Hoffner helps Ondar adapt traditional Tuvan tunes to American sensibilities.
Sometimes, the blend of studio-savvy Nashville session players with Ondar, who brings along his Tuvan banjo and jaw harp, results in insistent tracks ready for club mixes, especially the jaw-dropping "Tuva Groove (Bolur daa-bol, bolbas daa-bol)" and the tongue-twisting "Kargyraa Rap (Durgen Chugaa)." At other times, they create a pidgin of both cultures, like "Little Yurt on the Prairie (Arty Saiyyr)," which, despite its fanciful title, will remind you of a bad Tomita track.
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Many of the songs are upbeat, melodic chants--such as "Big River (Ulug Hem)"--that sound like crosses between American mountain music and Native American chants.
Unfortunately, "Two Lands, One Tribe (Alash Khem)," a number that attempts to mix Ondar's Tuvan pipes with Bill Miller's Native vocals, ends up sounding like "Dueling Banjos" for indigenous peoples. While trying to show that Tuvans and Native Americans have common cultural roots, the song belabors the point. "Where Has My Country Gone? (Kongurei)," which pairs Ondar with Willie Nelson (who is getting ever closer to his goal of dueting with everyone on the globe), is a more successful cross-cultural exchange.
Ondar laments Tuva's forcible "incorporation" into the Soviet Union, and Nelson underscores the melancholy with restrained English vocals. If Back Tuva Future had more moments like these, it would be an unqualified success. As it is, it still hits more than it misses.