Translated from Love is Kelly Willis' seventh album and her first (aside from a Christmas set in 2006) in five years. It was produced by Chuck Prophet with a small group of musicians that rotates a bit but is more or less a unit: Prophet, Greg Leisz, Marc Pisapia, John Ludwick, and Michael Ramos. Guests include Willis' husband Bruce Robison, the Tosca String Quartet, and Jules Shear (who wrote or co-wrote a couple of tunes here). Prophet, Willis and Shear take on the lion's share of writing credits here, often in combinations. Willis is the darling of alt country fans and NPR listeners, and each recording has received more platitudes than the one before. It will be interesting to see what they make of Translated. This is, in many ways, as slick as her MCA records, though it is punchier, rocks a little harder, and feels like it was geared for more open-minded country radio stations. The music is full of keyboards featured as prominently as guitars, tight arrangements, clipped harmonies, and bona fide rock riffs in places; what's more, the tracks accent the jumpier side of Willis' voice. Think Carlene Carter's 1980 album Musical Shapes (produced by Nick Lowe) (and yeah, it is a good thing).
Alt country, Americana or, as some are now calling it, "Ameripolitan" has become a ghetto of generic artists, sounds, and utterly forgettable songs that rely more on lyrical imagery than on their crafted melodies to get them across. Willis, who has played this game her way since leaving MCA in the '90s, knows what she's doing. Prophet's a perfect producer for getting what an artist wants out of a tune. "Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore" opens the set with its jaunty, popping 21st century rockabilly. It's got a shuffling, crisp blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and solid snare pop driving the thing. "Don't Know Why," with its Wurlitzer and B-3, carries a kind of '80s roots country feel: it's got a solid, hooky melody in a beautiful mid-tempo pop-love song written by Willis, Prophet and Shear. If there is any questions about the early rock & roll influence on this disc, go no further than "Teddy Boys," with its modified Chuck Berry lick. It's modified by Ramos playing a big fat Moog as part of the melody line. There are those young and middle-aged men (many of them critics who are projecting their own fantasies) who will write all these songs off as sell-outs, as "merely" recordings by female artists, unless their titles are drenched in a slavish vulnerability they perceive as "honesty." Willis offers a twist on these themes in "Losing You," with its banjo lines featured prominently, the tempo in the middle, and her expressive Virginia drawl drenched in strings and pedal steel.
"Too Much to Lose" puts Robison's vocals in the mix, and is also laden with strings. It's a slow, simple tune, but Willis sings with great authority. The longing in her voice and in her lyrics never sacrificess her dignity. The '60s rock harmonies that introduce "The More That I'm Around You" are offset by the cheesy synth lines. This is one of Shear's great pop songs and Willis does it justice, as does Leisz's Rickencbacker 12-string. The great cover of David Bowie's "Success" is simply a riot. It's all loose and ranging, driven by Ramos playing a Vox Continental organ and shouted backing vocals by the Gourds. There's a stolid country ballad in "Stone's Throw Away," a gorgeous song that plays more to Willis' recognizable past (so it may be big with the males mentioned above). The big fat rock & roll guitars in "I Must Be Lucky" accented by dobro and organ, make it one of the best cuts on the set, before the album's taken out by the minimally dressed acoustic title track with the sweet tinges of Shear's backing vocal and Ramos' accordion. In all, it's a winner, a solid, consistently crafted "new country" record that wears rock & roll proudly on its sleeve. And don't be surprised if the contemporary country stations or CMT and GAC pick up on it.