Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
(The Next Waltz)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
They may not yet be the Johnny and June, or even Buddy and Julie, of married American singer-songwriters, but Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are giving it their best shot. This is the duo’s fourth album together since 2006 and a follow-up of sorts to Willis’ terrific 2018 solo Back Being Blue.
A note on the back of the package says: “All songs recorded to analog tape with no digital shenanigans,” which provides an indication of the no-frills, back-to-basics atmosphere of these ten cuts. It’s a predominantly acoustic affair with Robison and Willis generally trading off lead vocals as the other joins for the chorus. A few upbeat moments like the twangy honky-tonking “One Dime at a Time” (referring to playing songs on a jukebox) and the ringing “The New Me” punctuate the mostly ballad and waltz rhythm program making this a well-balanced set both vocally and musically.
The opening “If I Had a Rose” sets the tone for this often bittersweet, always melodic set. It’s a lovely, measured song about a potential suitor trying to figure what it’ll take to impress the object of their affection, played with sympathy and class. Geoff Queen’s slide guitar (he also plays similarly sensitive pedal steel on other selections) slithers between Willis’ vocal with warmth and sensitivity, highlighting but never overwhelming the melancholy vibe. Ditto for the teary “Lost My Best,” as the lyrics of “I feel I loved you for a lifetime/ Don’t let it end today/ I gave my heart I gave my soul/ I gave it all away” will bring a twitch to the hardest of hearts. Add the title track where a couple’s love has gradually subsided described with “Nobody won we both lost/ With no one to blame.”
Thankfully, there are friskier tunes to offset the lost/fading love slower tracks. The story song of an offer that led to criminal charges in “Can’t Tell Nobody Nothin’” provides some comic relief. Robison takes the lead on “Astrodome,” a poignant tale of an elderly person reflecting while sitting in the titular venue, wondering what had happened with their life as he sings, “And how I just woke up here/ and the world had just moved along.”
The easygoing camaraderie is not just with the lead singers but extends to their band as well. It makes this music glow with low-key warmth. Nothing is overthought or embellished with excessive production and the headlining couple likewise stays on low-boil throughout. That works to the album’s advantage, proving once again that less is often more, especially in Americana.
Now how about a joint Willis/Robison-Buddy/Judy Miller tour?