Monday, August 31, 2009

American Classic/Lost Highway

I wonder if Willie Nelson knows how many records he’s had released under his name over the years. Whatever the number it’s been increased by 2 in the past couple of weeks.

On American Classic, Willie dips back into the “great American songbook” one more time for a tasteful (sometimes a bit too tasteful and subdued) stroll through a dozen classic tunes. Nelson is a consummate pro and so his readings are in the pocket (his voice is not quite as supple as it used to be…but hell, whose is?...and Willie doesn't always sound fully engaged) but the tracks (produced by another consummate pro, Tommy LiPuma with a crack band of jazz players including the legendary Crusader Joe Sample on piano) don’t soar much (a contrast to the playful, engaging vibe of Two Men with the Blues, Willie’s collaboration with Wynton Marsalis last year.)

All that said, there is some fine stuff here: “The Nearness of You” and “I Miss You So” both have a fetching fragility that is lovely, “On the Street Where You Live” is sprightly, and “Always on my Mind” is revisited to fine effect.

Willie comes to life during the two duets…”If I Had You” with Diana Krall and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Norah Jones…and though it doesn’t have the spark it might have reached for, American Classic is still a good addition to his other collections of classic songs.

Lost Highway is a compilation of 17 tracks (including 3 previously unreleased tracks and 1 song that had only been available on iTunes) recorded for the label of the same name (to keep that theme going, one of the songs, a cool duet with Ray Price, is also called “Lost Highway”.)

There are a lot of collaborations among the songs here, including the rollicking “Beer for my Horses” with Toby Keith, the classic country heartbreak of “I’m Still Not Over You” with Ray Price, and the tender “Overtime” with Lucinda Williams.

Willie goes into his own history with live versions of “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” (a duet with Shania Twain) and “Crazy” (with the husband and wife team of Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.)

Two tunes from the underrated The Great Divide…the playful “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)” with Rob Thomas and the Grammy-winning “Mendocino County Line” with Lee Ann Womack…are actually given a better showcase here than on the original album which buried the vocals too far in the mix.

Willie has some good solo showcases too: a fine, fine reading of “You Don’t Know Me”, plaintively heartfelt readings of “Back to Earth” and the previously unreleased “Both Sides of Goodbye’, the cheeky “Superman” (another previously unreleased track), a credible take on Jimmy Cliff’s reggae classic “The Harder They Come”, and the cool western swing of “Bubbles in my Beer”.

The collection concludes with two songs seemingly inspired by the movie Brokeback Mountain: the politically incorrect (and vaguely homophobic) “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” (which had been released only a download before this) and the profane (and decidedly homophobic) “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain” (which, even presuming that it was meant to be tongue in cheek, probably should have stayed “unreleased”.)

The last two tracks notwithstanding Lost Highway is a fine enough “best of” collection

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