Various Artists | Willie Nile-Uncovered | (Paradiddle Records)
3 out of 5 stars
At first glance this tribute to the very much alive and well New York folk rocker Willie Nile should be a much needed shot in the arm for the veteran singer/songwriter. After all, although he is lauded by critics and his peers for forty years’ worth of output (although business issues kept him sidelined for nearly a decade), Nile remains in “cult audience” status concerning his commercial appeal and overall recognition. So the prospect of high profile friends, followers and admirers joining to interpret Nile’s songs would surely help a guy who could use some long overdue crossover appreciation for his impressive talents.
But a closer look at the players on this double disc, 26 track set will leave most scratching their heads. Instead of familiar A-listers that have worked with Nile or even guested on his albums like Springsteen, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright lll, Roger McGuinn and Jakob Dylan, the most familiar names are Graham Parker, Nils Lofgren, John Gorka and Elliott Murphy.
That’s not to disparage the contributions of these or other veteran singer/songwriters like Lucy Kaplanski, Richard Barone, Emily Duff or Rod Picott who also interpret prime Nile tunes from various albums in his four decade run. It’s just that, regardless of the quality of these versions (and it’s consistently excellent), there aren’t enough recognizable/popular acts to entice and introduce their audiences to Nile’s music, expanding his existing base, which is at least part of the point of the project.
That said, it’s a dependably absorbing listen, even if you have no idea who contributors such as XL Kings (“a pop punk “That’s the Reason”), Allen Sartoriello (a jumpy, twangy “House of a Thousand Guitars), Iridesense (a Dylan-ish “History 101”) or Caroline Doctorow (the sweet pop country “Lonesome Dark Eyed Beauty”) are.
The discs are divided with more of the upbeat tracks on the first and ballads dominating the second. Those who have seen Nile tear it up with a crack garage band might be surprised to find slower, less rocking material like the shimmering “When the Last Light Goes Out on Broadway” (by Kaplansky backed by a string section) and Richard Shindell’s also Dylan-ish “The Road to Calvary,” plucked from Nile’s deep catalog. Allocating these songs to many non-New Yorkers removes some of the inherent grime of the NYC vibe that informs much of Nile’s own work. That’s not necessary a bad thing, but it does alter the sound and approach.
Existing fans will appreciate the sheer labor-of-love aspect, even if some of the recordings are inferior to the originals. Newcomers will want to dig back to hear the initial records like the anthemic “One Guitar” (two takes that close both discs), by Graham Parker and a reggae one from Johnny Pisano (Nile’s bass player) with Nile guesting, and the lovely “When Levon Sings” (Quarter Horse) among others.
No one is likely getting paid much for their offerings (a portion of the proceeds will also benefit hunger relief foundation Rock Can Roll). Rather everybody’s intentions are to bring increased attention to Nile’s urban, poetic and often powerful songs. Whether that happens as a result of this homage remains to be seen. But there is no disputing the quality of Willie Nile’s material or the generosity and love all those involved bring to the venture.