The new Works Progress Administration album is the sort of musical collaboration that should be encouraged. The core of WPA consists of Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), and Luke Bulla (Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas Band, Lyle Lovett). They are joined on the album by Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Sara Watkins (Sean’s sister, and also a member of Nickel Creek), Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell), and Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello and the Imposters). The musicians are part of a music scene that is centered around the Los Angeles club Largo. They put this project together totally on their own, sans managers or record labels.
WPA offers up classic Southern California country rock, and as is always the case with this genre, the album rises and falls with the quality of the songwriting. The good news is that Glen Phillips has contributed several terrific songs, including the wondrous opener “Always Have My Love.” He also takes a page out of Don Henley’s playbook with the heartbreak ballad “End This Now.” Less successful are Luke Bulla’s songwriting contributions. It’s not that songs like “Remember Well” are bad, and in fact “Cry for You” (written with Phillips) is pretty damn good. It’s just that they don’t seem to have much of a point, other then to make you cry in your beer. Sean Watkins’ songs fall somewhere in the middle. They are well-intentioned, mostly upbeat, but fairly standard efforts, save for “Not Sure,” a strong modern country song. Benmont Tench contributes the beautiful closing song “The Price,” which he wrote over 20 years ago, and Sara Watkins does a lovely job singing it. On the other hand, the cover of Ray Davies “I Go to Sleep” on which she sings is completely pointless given the great cover of the song that Chrissie Hynde did with the Pretenders way back when.
Jim Scott, perhaps best known for his work with Wilco and Tom Petty, produced the album in a way that allows the music to shine, and the playing is first-rate throughout. There is no studio gimmickry at work here. Of particular note is the fiddle playing by Luke Bulla and Sara Watkins, and the pedal steel work by Greg Leisz.
In the ’70s, good country rock albums like this one were prevalent, coming from sometimes forgotten bands like American Flyer, Pure Prairie League, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Souther, Hillman, and Furay. Their trademark was strong songwriting, and outstanding vocal harmonies. The WPA album put me in mind of those days, and it’s one of the more refreshing albums I’ve heard this year.
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/AqTWgXDogOE" width="600" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]