It's been six years since The Little Willies released an eponymous debut album. The New York City band is best known as a side project of Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones, along with singer Richard Julian, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Rieser. All accomplished musicians with their own careers, they've now released a second album titled For the Good Times — simply because, they say, they missed playing together.
For an album called For the Good Times, The Little Willies' members fill it up with wrenching material. These five friends started getting together in 2003 on a casual basis to play honky-tonk, outlaw country and Western swing favorites. On this new release, they often veer toward themes of unrelenting dissatisfaction and cheating hearts, portrayed in songs like "I Worship You" by the Stanley Brothers.
A large part of The Little Willies' magic lies in chemistry. Julian's voice provides a nice counterpoint to Jones' jazzy inflection, while guitarist Campilongo's string-bending wizardry crests spectacularly before diving back into the ensemble.
The Little Willies' members clearly possess a great love for all sorts of country music, but their approach doesn't always work. Some of these songs left me pining for a grittier and less pretty interpretation. They're most successful when they tackle upbeat Western swing, or ballads that complement the gentle beauty of Jones' voice. But the band members' disparate musical backgrounds and impressive creativity also lend themselves well to turning listeners on to obscure cover tunes, like the oddball pick "Fowl Owl on the Prowl," written by Quincy Jones for the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night.
The Little Willies' music doesn't ache like Hank Williams, or exude Loretta Lynn's feisty nature, though both artists are covered on this album. What they bring to these classic tunes is an extraordinary marriage of relaxed camaraderie and technical excellence. They're all incredible players, but they're also just a bunch of friends who are in it for each other, and for the sake of the songs.