Willie Nile | New York at Night | (River House Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Some musicians are inextricably tied to New York City; think the street corner doo-wop of Dion, Lou Reed and Patti Smith’s dark poetry, Garland Jeffreys, The Ramones, the New York Dolls and others. They not only sing about the metropolis (Reed even titled it as his 1989 album) but their music exudes the determination, strength and edgy, some might say anxious, qualities that the overall congestion and diversity of the area notoriously creates. Certainly Willie Nile can be added to this list.
Nile may not have been born in Manhattan proper (well, Buffalo isn’t that far away), but he has been a fixture on its music scene since his 1980 debut. His music has consistently epitomized a tough plucky swagger immediately recognizable as an essential element of the “New York Groove” as Ace Frehley once famously dubbed it. On Nile’s studio album number 13 (he has also released a clutch of live recordings, some captured before a hometown audience) and sixth from 2013 in a remarkably prolific period, the New Yorker’s resolute approach is even more pronounced than before.
Things kick off in rollicking, high spirited Dolls fashion with the self-descriptive love letter to his adopted home in “New York is Rockin’” (“Everybody’s swinging, yeah we’re having a ball”) but other songs such as “The Backstreet Slide,” “Downtown Girl” (“You got midtown smarts and uptown soul”) and the “Summertime Blues” riffed title track also reference the metropolitan life Nile is clearly endeared with.
The veteran singer/songwriter is supported by a crack band that finds the NYC grit even in ballads like the sing-along chorus of love song “Lost and Lonely World,” the heartfelt “Under this Roof” and the tear streaked evocative reminiscences on the poignant piano driven lament of “The Last Time We Made Love.” Niles’ voice has enough spoken/sung timber to provoke the notorious “new Dylan” tag being tossed his way (a recent set of Dylan covers didn’t change anyone’s mind about that either). But he’s his own man and Dylan never got as garage trashy as Niles does on the thumping rocker “The Fool Who Drank the Ocean.”
You don’t have to have lived in, or even visited, New York to appreciate Willie Nile’s gutsy, backstreet scarred, and urban style. No matter how hard he rocks on New York at Night though, he’s a romantic at heart. His rugged outside shell is just a leather jacket over the soul of a sensitive and honest musician with an enthusiasm for rock and roll that beats like the jackhammers punctuating the air of the city he loves.