Describing “Singin’ Bell,” the opening track on Willie Nile’s new collection, the singer says the song is an effort to filter the populist sentiment of Pete Seeger through the in-your-face sensibility of the Ramones. That’s a fair summation of several tunes on this release. Nile clearly sees music as a vehicle for making affirming statements about the world around him, and he likes to do it with driving drums and guitars. In addition, he clearly is not singing to but about and for his audience as a whole, and you’re invited to join the show.
Co-produced by Nile, collaborator Frankie Lee, Stewart Lerman, and Eagles/Rosanne Cash guitarist Steuart Smith, the album kicks off with anthems like “Singin’ Bell” that are disarmingly infectious while asking you to participate in the proceedings—singing, playing, or marching in the army of change. This is most evident in the second tune, “One Guitar,” with a chorus of “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.” Already a hit in Europe, the response to this call inspired Nile to create the One Guitar Campaign. At oneguitar.org, Nile encourages other artists to record their own interpretations of the song with the various versions sold on iTunes with the profits going to various charities. But you need not be a musician to get into the spirit. “Everybody sing for the innocent ones,” Nile proclaims in the album’s title cut. In “Song For You,” Nile isn’t being introspective but is “lighting a flame” for everyone who’s had a broken heart. If you’re not singing with him yet, odds are you soon will be.
Thereafter, Nile tells upbeat, catchy stories about some unusual women. There’s the Rubinoos-flavored “My Little Girl” about a woman who’s desirable despite some quirky flaws. When Nile is talking to a “Topless Amateur,” he’s asking questions of a lady seeking direction—“what are you looking for when crawling on your knees?” The Kinks are an obvious influence for “Rich And Broken” when Nile emulates Ray Davies describing a woman who has everything but a heart. The full band, apparently, sings the verses to “Can’t Stay Home,” yet another story of a girl who won’t behave. The poppy, Dylanesque “Sideways Beautiful” champions a girl who’s more than a tad off. She’s ragged company, singing Christmas songs in the summer.
The album concludes with old-school jingle-jangle guitar-driving “Far Green Hills” where Nile has another question to ask: “Have you seen the sunshine falling like a bad boy doing things I never will?” Once again, the emphasis is on the second person, as Nile is keenly focused on his listeners and isn’t on stage to be revelatory in the personal sense of the term. Only once do we get the idea Nile is being autobiographical, assuming the character sketches of the ladies are more composites and creative wordplay than retrospective. The lyrics to “Hear You Breathe” are about a man on the road missing someone special. But even here, the lively, engaging melodies and performances belie any sense that Nile is missing anything. This is a man and a band having a very good time.
This is an album to listen to, once. Then it’s an album to play again and this time, sing along. Drum along on Coke cans, or play air guitar. Then invite your friends, family, neighbors, classmates, whomever—and everyone join in. You won’t be able to help it. Resistance is futile.