Kelly Willis
What I Deserve

After failing to find much of an audience for her four fine releases from the Nineties -- beginning with 1990's Well-Traveled Love on MCA and concluding with the 1996 A&M EP Fading Fast -- honky-tonk chanteuse Kelly Willis was about ready to call the whole thing off and retire to her home in Austin. Fortunately the labelless singer/songwriter decided she had one more album in her that had to get made. The result, her glorious Rykodisc debut What I Deserve, is both the culmination of her critically acclaimed, commercially stalled career and an artistic leap forward into a patch of rootsy, country-rock turf that damn few artists have managed to find.

She got there with the musical assistance of producer Dave McNair, who assembled a band that illuminates the raw, rural grain of Willis's subtle but forceful vocals with a sound that mixes white-knuckled honky-tonk with the graceful rhythmic nuance of vintage Southern soul. But mostly What I Deserve succeeds because of Willis's ear for great songs and her ability to write great ones herself. This means Nick Drake's achingly despondent "Time Has Told Me" receives a definitive reading here, while Willis's similarly forlorn "Take Me Down" underpins the emotional confusion of Drake's confessional heartbreaker, as she sinks further and further into a destructive, fruitless relationship. And it means that though she sings the Replacements' "They're Blind" as if it was written for her, it's her own "What I Deserve" that works best, trading Paul Westerberg's shattering disappointment for the kind of faith and guarded optimism that refuses to let cynicism poison her soul: "Well I have done the best I can/Oh, but what I've done, it's not who I am/And oh what I deserve." What Kelly Willis deserves is an audience for what very well may be the most shimmeringly evocative artistic statement of this year.

-- John Floyd

Trans Am
(Thrill Jockey)

The title Futureworld indicates that in some small way the three members of Trans Am envision their music as replicating our rapidly changing times. Not so fast. You're also sure to notice that the graphics are hardly what we'd call state of the art in 1999. The clumsy and blocky cover art rendered in sickly Day-Glo green looks suspiciously like something that's been generically churned out on a computer the band might have found in the garbage. Technologically speaking these guys never advanced past Pong.

This modern-primitive technique spills into their music. Rhythms are robotic, the sound of an Eighties shopping mall beating its consumers over the head. The synthesizers used are blissfully inhuman, consistently burbling processed tones. Often it sounds as if voices were being translated through a vocoder. Quite possible, but the band isn't giving out any secrets. According to their Website, it's imperative to their progress not to divulge the crappy equipment they use. They wish to continue plundering the junk shops without competition.

The band's often clinical approach only enhances their sound, though. "Positron" begins as a busy drum pattern with faint buzzes in the background before the beats rub against one another and the synth pronounces a few subtle lines. Only "Futureworld II" smacks of dull, unvaried amateurism: The random plunks of the keyboard and blunt thuds of drums sound more like a novice trying to find the off-button than any intentional musicianship.

If so much of the hyped electronica wave is deliberately chic, modern, and sexy, then Trans Am is the science-lab nerd turning out ambient puzzles copped from his brother's Pink Floyd albums and overheard talk about Brian Eno. Sometimes the group is cheesy and lazy, likely to stick with an idea out of inertia. And sometimes Trans Am is unpeeling an onion, reveling in the subtle differences between layers.

-- Rob O'Connor