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Kelly Willis

Easy – 2002 (Rykodisc)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by Kelly Willis

Kelly Willis' second disc for Rykodisc, the first recorded expressly for the label, expands on the wealth of musical expression divulged on her previous release, "What I Deserve." This follow-up, however, trades the urgency of 1999's outpouring for a more relaxed expression. It's as if Willis realized that Rykodisc signed her for who she is, not, as her previous label (MCA) supposed, who she could be fashioned into. Ironically, the pressure of capitalizing on the success of "What I Deserve" has resulted in the most easy-going release of her career.

The arrangements provide the same acoustic-dominated backing found on Willis' impressive, but short-lived, 1996 association with A&M. The sparkling acoustic guitars of "If I Left You" and exquisite banjo picking on Paul Kelly's "You Can't Take it With You" frame the fragile strength of Willis' voice perfectly, and the mandolin and dobro of "Getting To Me" show off the singer's bluesy side. Her solo writes, especially the laconic "Not What I Had in Mind," are more assured, perhaps emboldened by the responsibilities of motherhood (Willis and husband Bruce Robison's son Deral was born in January 2001).

Robison's "What Did You Think" and Kirsty MacColl's "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!" display Willis' on-going mastery of emotionally complex covers, and the closing lullaby, "Reason to Believe," is flush with discovery and transformation. "What I Deserve" shook off Nashville's makeovers, "Easy" showcases Willis' ensuing artistic growth.