Album Review: Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison — Our Year

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | June 2nd, 2014

brucekellyouryearOn the title track of their new album, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robinson declare that “We’ve only just begun” but promise that “this will be our year” for it “took a long time to come.” When Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison released Cheater’s Game last year—the first album the couple had recorded together after 17 years together—to high praise from all corners, they asked themselves—and we asked the same question—why it took them so long to join vocal and musical forces. Fortunately for all of us, Cheater’s Game was only the beginning, and their follow up album, Our Year, leaves little doubt that this will be the year—indeed, the time of their lives—for the reigning duo of Americana music.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the album kicks off with a gorgeous take on the Ira Allen/Buddy Mize-penned “(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hanging On,” a lovers’ call-and-response ballad that captures at once the deep affections of a long love as well as the “I-can’t-quit-you-baby-’cause-your-love-keeps-pulling-me-back” nature of a deep love that has passed many tests. In some ways, the song plays a nice foil for Robison’s “Wrapped,” which Willis—and later George Strait—made her own on What I Deserve. With Robison taking off on the lead vocals and Willis weaving her high harmonies around them, “(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hangin’ On” is a spare ballad with Everly Brothers pop stylings—listen to the duo’s “ahh, ahh, ahhs” at the end of the chorus—woven around Pete Finney’s crying steel guitar. By the time we get to the end of the song, Willis and Robison have us twisted around their finger, and they know how to hold us, thrill us, and control us, more than enough to keep us hanging on for the rest of the album.

The seductive beauty of “(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hanging On” meanders through the album’s remaining songs, washing over every tune with the duo’s crystalline vocals, Robison’s introspective and bracing writing, and tight instrumentals. If Ray Price were still alive, he’d want to sing “Carousel” on his next album. Drenched in fiddles and pedal steel, this lovely shuffle mirrors the movement of a carousel and its roundelay as it ponders the circular character of life and love: “Maybe we were never meant to be together a whole life long/Maybe just a star across the sky here and gone/Lovers’ dreams they come and go/Still we try again/The world just goes around and ’round and ’round/It’s such a crazy game/But people love the carousel/No one’s to blame.” “I’ll Go to My Grave,” the Statler Brothers’ nugget, opens with Willis and Robison’s a cappella crooning but is soon galloping off in a classic Western swing groove with Eamon McLaughlin’s fiddle scampering across the territory and Geoff Queen’s steel scurrying close behind.

The duo includes the Tom T. Hall-penned classic, “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which Willis says she learned in secret in order to zing her husband from veering of the set list in their shows. It went so well that they now have added the song to their sets. The duo’s version starts off slow and sultry, with a funky little groove that resembles the guitar lines of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe,” but which builds to a powerful punch-to-the gut thanks to McLaughlin’s fiercely plucked mandolin.

“Motor City Man” is classic Willis, a straight-ahead, bare bones rocker that tells a mournful tale of life gone wrong—in this case the collapse of a city and an industry that ends with the collapse of an individual—that nevertheless holds in itself that silver glimmer of hope. With a wink and a nod, the singer wryly points out that even in the midst of desolation there’s the hope of liberation, using the very instrument of salvation that the singer has helped to make all these years: “No matter who you are/You got to have a car/In the USA.” Willis stretches out the phrasing on “USA” so that the word resembles that old Chevrolet jingle that urges listeners and viewers to “see the USA in a Chevrolet.” This harmonica-drenched tune, woven around Queen’s dobro, recalls Jerry Jeff Walker and his story songs. The Willis/Paul Kennerley-penned honky-tonker “Lonely for You” opens with a guitar riff from “Suspicious Minds,” has the rhythmic structure of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” and blends the sounds of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” with the galloping rhythms of the Bobby Fuller Four and Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now.” When the Zombies recorded “Our Year,” the song was spare enough, with just piano and vocals, but Willis and Robison—who’ve sung it annually in their Christmas show—strip it down even more and imbue the lyrics with the promise and hope of a new beginning.

The beauty of this album comes from Willis and Robison’s knowing and canny way with a song, as well as more, and even more important, their ability to read each other’s voices, weave around each other’s vocals, and create an intimacy in their sound that invites listeners into the duo’s world. It may be Willis and Robison’s year, but with this album, it’s our year, too.

4.5 Stars

Preview or purchase Our Year

  1. Jonathan Pappalardo
    June 2, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Fantastic review, Henry! “Carousel” is a standout, one of the best songs of the year, and a personal favorite.

    I just love this album and Kelly & Bruce as a duo so much. May they continue to record such outstanding music together down the road.

  2. Heidi Hyatt
    June 2, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    I’d like to thank Kelly and Bruce for choosing to record “Motor City Man”, written by the late Walter Hyatt (unmentioned in review), and for making it the first single released off this sweet record. It’s truly an honor that they thought this highly of Walt and are making it so people can still appreciate his gift of song many years since his passing so that his legacy lives on… Right on!

  3. henry
    June 3, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Thank you so much for your comment, Heidi, and for keeping Walter’s legacy in front of us.

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