Kelly Willis: Back Being Blue

Kelly Willis
Back Being Blue
(Thirty Tigers/The Orchard)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Duets, in any genre, are a double-edged sword. For every act whose sound is defined by the interaction of two voices—think the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel—there are as many where the individual singers lose their distinctive qualities when paired with others.

Austin based singer-songwriter Kelly Willis fell somewhat into that latter problematic territory when she released two well-received projects with husband and producer Bruce Robison. As enjoyable as both 2013 Cheater’s Game and its follow-up Our Year were, Willis’ expressive voice got a little overshadowed when combined with Robison’s. She contributed a few solo tracks to those albums—her frisky version of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was especially fun—but you couldn’t help but be disappointed that Willis seemed to put her own career on hold, especially after 2007’s terrific Chuck Prophet-helmed Translated From Love. 

After 11 years she has returned with Back Being Blue, produced by, but not featuring, Robison. Perhaps the key word is “back.” It’s an album that confirms her vocal talents haven’t diminished and adds strong original songwriting—she penned six of the 10 tracks—not something she was always known for. Willis has typically been as much about pop as country, twanging up her approach to the more countrypolitan style of Rosanne Cash’s hits. Willis’ work in conjunction with Robison leaned to a stronger roots approach so it’s particularly refreshing to hear the bittersweet, opening title ballad revert to that earlier vibe. It captures everything Willis does well: her sensitive voice expressing ache, regret and heartbreak with a subtle country influence all in service to a bluesy tune you’ll sing back after one spin. She goes full country swing in borrowing a hit from the similarly styled Skeeter Davis with “I’m A Lover (Not A Fighter)” (will anyone under 50 will get the Cassius Clay reference?), and taps the always dependable pen of Rodney Crowell for his regretful strummer “We’ll Do It For Love Next Time.”

It’s saying plenty that Willis originals like the rollicking “Modern World,” the lovely fiddle enhanced acoustic “Fool’s Paradise,” and the remorseful, stripped-down weeper “What The Heart Doesn’t Know,” not only hold their own with the four covers, but are arguably stronger than them. Even though she’s most comfortable infusing pop to her songs, the charming, folksy “Freewheeling” feels like a decades-old country tune rather than a freshly written entry.

Even after over a decade away from the solo focus, Back Being Blue feels less like a return than a natural progression. That’s not to knock Willis’ two fine collaborations with Robison, but it’s a pleasure to have her talent front and center and not sharing the spotlight.