If there is a critical consensus about anything it is that Kelly Willis' voice is a gift from God. For most of her career though, it has been a voice in search of a context. Bang Bang worked best for me, with its rockabilly energy, great band (including the incomparable Steuart Smith on guitar), and consistently great tunes. Unfortunately, despite the success of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell with a similar sound, Nashville was not ready for her.
Since then Willis has wandered from records that were too slick (the Don Was produced Kelly Willis) to too laid–back (the aptly titled Easy). Too, the material has rarely come up to the level of her debut. Part of the problem is that while "that voice" is indelibly country, it is much more than that, with a slight rock and roll rasp and an urban intelligence that resists being slotted into traditional settings.
Chuck Prophet is another artist whose grounded roots are tempered by awareness that there is a world beyond the barn. This may be why Willis sounds so at home in the Prophet produced Translated from Love. Leave it to the Chuckster to divine that Willis would revel in Iggy Pop's tune "Success," and to leave her delighted laughter in the track to prove it.
And check out Willis' bossa acoustic version of "Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon Anymore" on composer Damon Bramblett's myspace page to see how Prophet's instincts were right on when he converted it to a driving pop-rocker. Also inspired was bringing Greg Leisz on board to lend his modern steel guitar to "Losing You" and his twelve-string touch to "Sweet Little One," keeping them rooted but not dated.
Country music has never known what to do with Kelly Willis. By bringing out the rock ("Teddy Boys") and pop elements of Willis' spirit (the Jules Shear penned "The More That I'm Around You"), Chuck Prophet has given her a chance to find a home on AAA radio--where she always belonged. And there is still that voice....
• Michael Ross