ALBUM REVIEW: Willie Nile's European hit The Innocent Ones has been released in the U.S., just in time for several of its infectious populist anthems to join the soundtrack for Occupy Wall Street.
By Robbie Woliver
Willie Nile is a musical treasure. In terms of discussing his place in the rock pantheon, there really is no discussion. He belongs there, and for some very crazy reason, not enough folks know about him. Sure, he’s got a legion of fans globally and he’s highly regarded by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Lou Reed, but this guy should be gearing up for his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speech, and not breaking his back promoting his latest should-be-classic, The Innocent Ones. And you know, on top of it all, he’s a really nice, salt-of-the-earth guy who just happens to rock like a superstar.
Willie’s career began in the 1980s when he balanced himself deftly between the Lower East Side grit of CBGB's and the earnest heart of Greenwich Village’s singer-songwriter revival. This guy has a folkie heart for sure but he is a rock 'n' roll beast.
He debuted on Arista Records and for decades he played his heart out for devoted (dare I say, cultish, fans around the world). His albums throughout this time soared with passion and mastery of the craft, but he was always on the edge, never quite in the spotlight like so many of his influences (Dylan and Springsteen). And that is good news, because it kept Willie hungry, and you can hear it in every single note of every single song.
Check out his catalog on www.WillieNile.com (I particularly like Streets of New York and House of A Thousand Guitars), but just about everything he’s recorded is golden.
Now he’s back with an American release of his European hit album The Innocent Ones, a recording garnering fans and raves like a magnet, and the timing is perfect. Nile’s songs are anthemic, populist pop gems that will certainly find resonance in these troubling times. And don’t misunderstand this—Nile is no sad sack, his songs are uplifting anthems for any generation.
There’s an extraordinary mix of sensibilities Willie Nile employs in his music. He combines the manic abandon of pop-punk, the passion-of-the-people of folk and a dash of musical influence from his Irish background, more Pogues that Clancy Brothers.
Nile’s music is the rousing, stamping-the-beat-out-on-the-floor kind of rock, even on ballads like “Song For You.” Every track on Innocent Ones will stir you to raise your fists stadium-style, as you rocket along with his riveting, tight band (Steuart Smith on acoustic and electric guitar, electric sitar-guitar, banjo, bass, piano and pump organ, Frankie Lee on drums and percussion, Stewart Lerman on electric guitar, and Hirsh Gardner on parade drum. Multi-talented Nile plays a wide variety of instruments from guitar to keyboards.) These are singalongs that are both provocative and infectious. You need no more than one listen to have every song on this remarkable disk live in your head.
The wonderful pop-music journalist Ann Powers asked in a recent article, “Who are the voices of the Occupy Wall Street movement?” and I would contend…try Willie Nile. Like #OWS he’s direct, he’s got a universal message and he’s passionately devoted. He rarely is introverted in his music, and even the most personal songs are addressed to his wider audience. He opens up his world instead of reigning it all in.
The album kicks of with the always-hopeful sound of clanging of church bells and suddenly jumps into a driving punk beat that has shades of country and Irish rock. “Singin’ Bell” is a jangly rouser that would sit just as well at a Ramones or Clash concert as it would at a Black 47 or Flogging Molly gig. Or, for that matter, even on the Clearwater after a Pete Seeger performance.
“One Guitar” is finally, after he's made brilliant rock music for so long, Willie Nile’s signature song: “I'm a soldier marchin' in an army/Got no gun to shoot/But what I got is one guitar/I got this one guitar." With its eternal “na na na na na na na na na na” chorus and the theme of one guitar being more powerful than any army, Nile finally has his song that will have its place in history. With all the messages out of #OWS, here is one we can all get behind. Remember this song, “One Guitar,” it’s a beauty. (Check out the website for OneGuitar.org to get more information about his One Guitar charity initiative for the TJ Martell Foundation for Cancer and AIDS Research, and other good causes. He is hoping to get 2,000 versions of the song "one Guitar" recorded for a new Guiness World Record.)
The chugging title track is genius songcrafting with its dead-serious verses juxtaposed with its joyous chorus: “High... High... stand up in the sun/ Everybody sing for the innocent ones/Hey... Hey... nowhere left to run/ Everybody sing for the innocent ones.” It's another #OWS potential standard, because he deftly captures the universal hopes and spirit of the growing movement, even though the song was written well before the movement was born.
These are songs performed with a band that well complements Nile's genuine gusto and earnestness. You can tell from the first note of this album that the live show version will just kill. Here's a taste of Nile's electrically charged live persona, as he performs with his fan Bruce Springsteen:
“Hear You Breathe” with its gentle lyrics and pummeling rock instrumentation demonstrates that how even when Nile isn’t writing an anthem for the people, his songs still have that million-dollar hook. Here’s where the singer-songwriter in Nile goes all rebel on us. Most every other writer would have taken this quiet lyric and written music to it that was something more…well, lyrical. Not Willie, and thank goodness.
Nile does slow down for the Beatles-ish ”Song For You,” whioh turns into a message to more than just the ”you” one might expect. We are all the “you” in this. And the crack in Nile's voice midway in is pure satisfying emotion. And then it’s Nile who becomes the “you” as his band sings to him. That’s a nice turn.
The Buddy Holly-inspired “My Little Girl” is one of several takes on not-so-perfect women in Willie’s universe, as is the pumped-up power-riffed “Topless Amateur,” the Simon & Garfunkel-meet-the Kinks’ “Rich And Broken” and punky-good “Can’t Stay Home,” with its great "Telstar" intro and lusting lyrics like, “But when I see her on the street the sidewalk melts from all that heat.” “Can’t Stay Home,” is perhaps the most fun you’ll have with this album—it is total abandon, sung by the entire band, and it couldn’t be any more ear-wormish. You’ll feel like you’re with your drunken buddies at a Black 47 gig in a funky old Irish Bar on New York’s Second Avenue.
Then Nile gets all sweet on us when he sings about his quirky daughters in the gritty grace of “Sideways Beautiful.” Every parent (especially daddies) of unique daughters will be swept away by this one. Yes, he sounds like Dylan, but you know what…he sounds like Dylan, and, yes, the song closely echoes ”You Are So Beautiful,” but it’s wonderfully reinvented Nile-Style.
As with “Can’t Stay Home,” “Far Green Hills,” has another great Willie Nile line about the heat he feels from the women he desires. He professes his love: “If fire was her daughter, I would drink a pail of water. Just to kiss her…just to kiss her.” The burning desire is eternal, and the production is straight out of MTV-era mid-‘80s, along the lines of Big Country.
Willie Nile has that gift that a rare breed of artists possesses, where they can make the most personal universal. Add Nile’s knack for a devilish, pounding beat, and you have magic.
IN OTHER WORDS: Another classic from Willie Nile, and one that has such strong cuts he’s bound to finally get the attention he deserves.
THE INNOCENT ONES RATING: 9.5/10
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