Saturday, July 2, 2011

July 2: The Little Willies, "Streets Of Baltimore"

Artist: The Little Willies
Song: "Streets Of Baltimore"
Album: The Little Willies
Year: 2003

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One of the biggest pitfalls that many bands seem to fall into is when they forget that at its core, music is supposed to be a fun, if not outright joyous experience, and one must be careful to not take themselves too seriously.  Countless times, one can watch the appeal and sound of an artist spiral downward as it becomes more obvious that they have lost sight of this simple fact, and are no longer being true to their craft.  This becomes even more apparent when one experiences an artist or band who clearly love the very act of creating music, and it is a rare occasion that such passion in performance results in anything less than stellar recordings.  This was the exact case when in 2003, a group of musician-friends decided that they wanted to record an album together, so they found a studio and began recording the songs for which they had a shared love.  This quintet dubbed themselves The Little Willies, a tribute to one of their main influences, Willie Nelson, and his impact on their musical styles can be felt throughout their self-titled debut.  Filled with mostly covers of "standard" honky-tonk and western-style tunes, one would be hard pressed to find a better example of a band unselfishly sharing the spotlight, and there is a sheer joy that comes through in every single song on the record.  Due to this feeling, as well as the exceptional level of musicianship, it is hard to single out a "best" track, yet one can quickly understand the endless appeal of The Little Willies by listening to their 2003 rendition of, "Streets Of Baltimore."

As "Streets Of Baltimore" begins, it is clearly a bit more restrained than some of the high-energy numbers found on the album, and yet the mood is just as upbeat and captivating as any of their other recordings.  Led by a swinging, almost saloon-style piano progression from none other than Norah Jones, there is a great deal of emotion being but forth by her playing.  There is a very strong honky-tonk feel in parts of her performance, and yet it is the way in which she is also able to bring a beautiful delicacy to her playing that not only gives the song a great deal of depth, but also shows how much the country styles had on her solo recordings.  The piano is perfectly complimented by a twang-filled, meandering guitar piece from Jim Campilongo, and it is in this element of the song where the influence of Willie Nelson is the most obvious.  In many ways,  Campilongo's playing almost serves as an additional vocal part, as his sound is so expressive that one cannot help but be caught up in this aspect alone.  Yet the rhythm section of bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Rieser are just as vital to the song, giving "Streets Of Baltimore" an uncanny amount of soul and depth.  The song has an absolutely infectious allure, and the almost loose feeling that comes through in the music helps to highlight just how much fun the entire band was clearly having in the studio.

Working in perfect harmony with the musical side of "Streets Of Baltimore," the vocals throughout the song share the same power and beauty as the music over which they are sung.  Mirroring the same "team" effort as the music, Richard Julian handles the lead on this song, while Norah Jones delivers one of the most inspired backing vocals ever captured on tape.  Julian's voice is as honest and pleasant as one could imagine, and he is able to convey an uncanny level of emotion with each line that he sings.  Working all across the vocal scale, one can feel him "give in" to the music, and as he lets his voice soar, there has rarely been a better embodiment of the true delight that one can experience through singing.  The way in which Jones' voice simultaneously compliments and contrasts that of Julian is as good as singing gets, and in many ways, she is able to highlight the spirit and energy of the almost bittersweet words of "Streets Of Baltimore."  The fact that the song itself is in the end a rather somber tale is almost lost behind the level of energy and appeal of the singing, as Julian spins the timeless tale of doing everything possible to make a loved one happy, only to be left alone in the end.  There is a beautifully tragic feel when the pair harmonize the lines, "...but I soon learned she loved those bright lights more than she loved me...," and it is in this duality where the brilliance of The Little Willies lives.

The fact that "Streets Of Baltimore" is so flawless is not surprising when one considers the exceptional level of talent within each of the band members.  However, one can easily argue that it is the almost leisurely, lighthearted spirit of every song that makes the album become so much greater than the sum of its parts.  Though Norah Jones is certainly the name which most will recognize, there is no question that the entire album is a completely balanced effort, and it is this shared commitment to rediscovering the pure enjoyment of making music with friends that reminds the listener what it is like to hear truly great music.  Even on the more serious, heartbreaking songs, the feeling that the entire band is cherishing every second is never lost, and it is perhaps this freedom that makes every song so uniquely fantastic.  Furthermore, especially on songs like "Streets Of Baltimore," the number of different influences that the band brings as a whole become clear, and it is the way that they are able to put their own spin on "standards" that makes The Little Willies one of the few records that never loses its appeal, even after playing it countless times.  Though each listener will certainly have their own track on the album that is their favorite, there is not a "bad" moment anywhere on the record, and one can hear the absolute enjoyment and brilliant musicianship that defines The Little Willies within their 2003 take on the classic, "Streets Of Baltimore."

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