Willie Breeding | Cheap Vodka Rain (s/r)

cd_willie-breeding.jpgHis thin, undeveloped voice tries desperately to convey the passion and longing so evident in the music and the lyrics.







Listening to Willie Breeding’s new album Cheap Vodka Rain makes one wish that Jesse Malin were a part of a band, rather than a solo artist. The album is heartfelt, gut-wrenching with outstanding musicianship and songwriting, but is ultimately held back by the frontman himself. It’s really quite a shame, because Cheap Vodka Rain has some of the best songwriting to come out of the alt-country genre in awhile and deserves a better presentation.

The album starts with a slow number, "White Dress," which sets the mood more than a speedy, hook-ridden tune would. From there, the album clocks in with the upbeat title track, followed by a litany of more country misery tunes which seem fresh and original while staying firmly in the tradition, though more from the late ’60s to ’70s rather than the early ’90s. Willie Breeding, who hails from Kentucky but now resides in New York, sounds like an East Coast guy trying his hand at country though he slips very comfortably into the bitter-sweet sound of Gram Parsons. He doesn’t even attempt a country accent, which is pleasing because it doesn’t insult the audience like so much faux-country coming out of Nashville these days. The album resides firmly in the whiskey bottle and pain tradition, and actually could have used the leavening of a brighter song or two, which Parsons was always wise enough to include. But, the sadness is never oppressive, just a little repetitive and one shouldn’t tell a musician what emotions he should convey in his music, only if he has done so effectively, even if I just did.

The songwriting, as well as the music itself and the lyrics, hold up with the best of the genre and even seem to explore new musical territory. There is very little original in the lyrics, exploring heartache, longing, unrequited love, requited love one doesn’t deserve or even desire, but the songs are delivered with a fine turn of phrase and a pleadingly urgent delivery. The band members, including Marah’s Dave Bielanko, are all solid musicians who know their instruments well, though they sometimes seem more NYC coffeehouse than Texas roadhouse. The only time they really stretch out on the second song, the mix sounds a little low on the instruments and the solo is cut short just as they seemed to be developing a solid country groove.

This leads us to the disappointing aspect of the album: Willie Breeding’s voice. His thin, undeveloped voice tries desperately to convey the passion and longing so evident in the music and the lyrics, but seems overmatched. One can feel the emotion he is trying to transmit through his voice, but it only seems to underscore his lack of execution. To be glib, the fact that he is trying to do it for you doesn’t do it for you. His wife’s beautiful voice accompanying him on several songs rather than reinforcing his singing, overpowers him. One wonders what a classic this could have been had Willie worked with a singer, such as the Old 97’s Rhett Miller, whose voice has the strength and the timbre to convey pathos and misery that country music truly needs.

This is not to say that I disliked the album. Far from it. There is so much to recommend this album that several listenings to this album reveal new pleasures and make the deficiencies recede into the background. One just wonders what might have been had Willie’s voice been slightly stronger or he been background singer in a band. The songs "White Dress" and "Broken Kinda Way" can break a heart as well as any country tune and there isn’t a weak song on the whole album. So, despite its flaws, if you want to hear an album with outstanding songwriting and beautiful songs, you would have a hard time finding a better album this year.

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