June 1999

Michelle Willson - Tryin' to Make a Little Love
Bullseye Blues & Jazz 11661-9610-2
Released: 1998

by Todd Warnke

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Michelle Willson. Unless you subscribe to the Rounder Records catalog, chances are the name is new. But if the music business is fair (ha!), this album will go a long way to making her a well-known singer, at least in certain circles. Why certain circles? Willson combines jump blues, gospel, R&B, country-influenced blues and New Orleans trad -- not exactly adult contemp., much less top 40. But for lovers of blues based R&B, sung and played with real feeling and style, Willson is a find.

With a voice just husky enough to convince you that she’s a woman with the knowledge to understand the pleasure and pain of the results of the Joan Osborne-penned title track, Willson also strikes with the sass of youth. Whether taking on songs by Johnny Otis ("In the Driver’s Seat"), Doc Pomus and Dr. John ("Responsibility"), or Los Lobos (a beautiful, gospel version of "Someday"), the obvious joy that Willson has in just singing shows forth. Fresh, vital and vivid, this is a disc that rewards both solo and party playing. In fact, about ten minutes into the album, Robin and I were clearing chairs and dancing around the room. Even Ella, the rat-dog, felt the spirit and joined in.

Besides singing, Willson penned several of the songs, including the hard R&B "I Would Rather Do Without It," and the gorgeous Austin Tex-Mex "Corazon de Hielo." The band backs her with self-effacing skill, leaving the spotlight on the vocals. As for the sound quality, if I ever recommend an album based on sound quality alone, place a call to the X-Files, as that’s proof that the aliens have taken over. Still, this is an album that could lure a less-principled reviewer into making just that recommendation. Lacking only in that last bit of air and sense of a precise recording location, the disc has wonderful texture, immediacy, drive and dynamics. If I could replace every Diana Krall CD at CES with this disc, the demo quality would stay the same, but the soul level would go from below readable to off the scale.

Yeah, this is a recommended disc. First and foremost for the joy and skill that Michelle Willson brings to the proceedings, and, if that isn’t enough to get your audiophile rear out of the chair and down to the record store, then for the sound quality. Just be sure the neighbors are on vacation when you put it on, or better yet, invite them over, ‘cause as soon as you put the disc on, a party’s gonna happen.