Kelly Willis,
What I Deserve
(Rykodisc, 1999)

What I Deserve is not Kelly Willis's best album. That honor belongs to her hard-to-find 1996 EP, Fading Fast, which consisted of four perfect performances of four perfect songs. Naturally, her record company at the time, A&M, dropped her immediately after releasing Fading Fast only in Texas and as a radio promo.

Released on the more sympathetic Rykodisc label, What I Deserve is Willis's best full-length effort. Gone are the slightly too slick production and occasional uncomfortable attempts at radio-friendly singles that marred her three previous albums on MCA; on What I Deserve, Willis sounds for the first time like she's making the album she wants to make.

The most likely reason for Willis's lack of commercial success is that nobody has been able to figure out how to market her: she is, I can just hear some A&R man complaining, too rock for country and too country for rock 'n' roll. What I Deserve ranges widely in style, but sounds less schizophrenic than say, 1993's Kelly Willis, on which a fiddle-heavy remake of the Kendalls' country hit "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" followed the rocking "Take It All Out On You," featuring a raucous Mike Henderson on lead guitar.

Willis's country sensibility still informs What I Deserve -- most clearly, in songs such as "Talk Like That," about someone's accent reminding her of Oklahoma and her family -- but more subtly. This time around, organ is just as prominent as fiddle, and (unfortunately) it's unlikely you'll be hearing any of these tracks on "Hot Country" radio.

"Talk Like That" is one of six songs here penned by Willis, who until now has not been what you'd call a prolific songwriter (Willis co-wrote a total of five songs on her first three albums). It's a winner, as are the title track, "Take Me Down," "Happy With That" and "We're Not Long For This World," the other songs she wrote or co-wrote for the album. "Fading Fast," also co-written by Willis, makes a welcome reappearance on What I Deserve.

But in spite of her ability as a songwriter, it's as a singer that Willis really shines. Someone once described her voice as that of an angel with scorched wings, and she lives up to the hyperbole on What I Deserve. Willis radiates comfort and sensuality on "Cradle of Love" and "Got a Feelin' For Ya," but what she does best is heartbreak, and she's seldom done it better than on "Not Forgotten You" and "Wrapped" (both written by Willis's husband and fellow Austin musician Bruce Robison), and most especially, "We're Not Long For This World."

There are a couple of missteps. Willis's cover of the Replacements' "They're Blind" sounds whiny rather than wounded. Nick Drake's impressionistic "Time Has Told Me," while an interesting choice, sounds oddly out of place on an album filled mostly with simple emotions forcefully expressed. But these are minor quibbles about an album as fine as What I Deserve.

What does Kelly Willis deserve? A ton of airplay and a Grammy, for starters.

[ by Chris Simmons ]

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