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Review: Willie Nile, The Innocent Ones

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Willie Nile
The Innocent Ones
[River House Records (2011)]

Willie Nile has had his share of tribulations in the music business. Despite ringing endorsements from artists like, say, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Lou Reed, and opening sets for artists like Lucinda Williams (who told her audience that if there was any justice in the world, she would be opening for him) and The Who, Nile has a reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter” and his particular mash-up of The Clash and Dylan/Van Morrison/Springsteen visionary rock has not seen much in the way of commercial success. Bouncing around to different labels—three in the last five years alone—hasn’t helped matters. House of a Thousand Guitars, Nile’s followup to The Street of New York (the masterpiece that brought him national attention after decades of obscurity, and one I’ve bought multiple times when it’s been lost, stolen, or loaned out), was grudgingly accepted by critics but barely made a blip with the public. The Innocent Ones was released in 2010 in Europe, and it’s taken a year to find distribution here in the States.

Nile’s descriptions of his hometown on The Streets of New York carried a mythical power that is completely lost on The Innocent Ones when he broadens his worldview into vague prophetic pantheistism (the opener “Singin’ Bell,” a good melody but nondescript lyrically, and “Song for You,” a writing-about-writing piece with an overblown chorus and out-of-place operatic choir vocals) or writes about his guitars (“One Guitar”) instead of colorful characters. He only gets down to the business of character studies in the middle of the disc, with “My Little Girl,” a bouncy tune similar to “Asking Annie Out”; “Topless Amateer”; and “Rich and Broken” (a love song written to an alcoholic) coming in quick succession. These are some of the most memorable lyrics on the album. But “Topless Amateur” cribs its riff directly from John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good,” which is very distracting and ruins one of the better rock tunes on the album.

The Innocent Ones has some highlights worth seeking out, however. The title track hits all the right notes, with a downbeat dark minor-chord verse giving way to an outstanding shout-along chorus. It noticeably improves on the universalism that missed in the opening track. And “Can’t Stay Home” justifies all of Nile’s punk rock bonafides. Its deep duet vocals and chugging guitar&bass rhythm take a cue from The Clash or The Ramones, with a bridge drawn from Nile’s more melodic sensibilities. It’s a fun track that blares its influences without feeling dated.

The album could have used more songs like “Can’t Stay Home,” mostly because there’s nothing like it on Streets of New York. Without the dramatic backdrop of his hometown, much of Nile’s mythic lyrical reaching in songs like “Singin’ Bell” becomes overreaching, and the inevitable comparisons to his masterpiece aren’t favorable.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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