Willie Nile is back with a kamikaze dive into rough and rowdy rock territories. For those who think, “Well, the guy hangs out with a bunch of Jersey icons, so it’s going to be that same sort of sound,” you will be way off the mark. Nile actually got his start in the middle of the Greenwich Village music scene, becoming a popular fixture in the Village’s folk clubs while drawing influence from the emerging downtown punk scene.
Nile continues that interesting and ever-evolving hybrid journey that’s seen him wade through the complex domains of fickle major label stratospheres as well as concerts of historic value, and he’s finally reaching his own island of fortitude. But that’s always been Willie’s secret for longevity; he’s just kept on moving forward. Just when you might think you have him in your crosshairs, he’s off in the next enthusiastic direction, riding his tsunami of sound to an out of this world destination that shows no sign of fading.
His latest album is called American Ride, and it marks Nile’s 35th year in the business. Due out as of this writing on Loud & Proud, Nile becomes the first artist released under the label’s new deal with RED Distribution. When you ask him about American Ride, Nile answers enthusiastically, “These are songs about the rights of man, songs about freedoms, songs about love and hate, songs about loss, songs about God and the absence of God, and songs about standing up for your fellow man. It’s upbeat and full of life. I’m thrilled with how it came out.”
American Ride kicks off with an old-school four count on “This Is Our Time.” Nile demonstrates his skill at three-chord gold as guitars chug and accentuate against the grain of his legible verse work. Handclaps and background harmony “oohs” sail this skiff of a song straight into the minds of no-frills enthusiasts everywhere.
“Life On Bleeker Street” opens with a scrambling guitar and keyboard riff before kicking into the meat of the matter. Nile’s trademark vibe of fist-raising rebel rouser continues with this zestful look at life on one of NYC’s most popular cultural destinations. Compositionally grainy in that blue collar, Chevrolet and apple pie Americana way, “Life On Bleeker Street” switches gears at 1:42 as Nile and crew wind down, turn left and throw hard to third base, coming up out of the bridge with a build into the catchy, guitar-jangling chorus. Special kudos goes out to Johnny Pisano and Rob Morsberger for killer string orchestrations.
“American Ride” pumps the brakes and downshifts into Nile’s extraordinary timeline past. Acoustics lead the way as electric swell pedal steel bends take the wheel from the first verse of this underrated, backbeat special. The guitar break is jagged and melodic silver, and nothing on this Don Felder-styled lead is wasted as it recedes back into the brisk drum and bass attack. “American Ride” brings images of life on (and off) the highway of reality as only Nile could present it. Shades of the Eagles, Dylan, Levon Helm, The Boxmasters and Johnny Prine fly through my head out on this musical road to inspiration town.
More than any song on the disc so far, Nile steps into the arena of commercial acceptance with “She’s Got My Heart.” However, this is no bubblegum pop tune or toss away jingle. “She’s Got My Heart” embraces the Aurelian 1970s and the summertime single that bands like the Eagles were famous for. Laid-back rhythm work bounces between lazily stroked acoustic guitars. Electrics swirl and twirl at the bridge, traces of reverb spattered ripples ebb and flow under the melodic vocal tides of Nile. Here, we watch Willie describe the “Blind Man’s Walk” out in no man’s land because of love. Cautionary warnings of a girl that’s trouble fall on deaf ears of someone hopelessly in the throes of love.
“God Laughs” is a snarling pub chanter in the vein of Black 47 meets The Romantics. This is a magnificent song for those who don’t know that underneath that nice guy persona, Nile has a severely sardonic wit. Lyrics on “God Laughs” are smart and about as tongue-in-cheek as you can get. “God wails, God moans, God don’t use fax or telephones/God drinks, God smokes, God plans to quit before he croaks.” Guitars slash and clang as drums hit hard. Bass work bounces and winds between bar chord blitzkriegs. The middle eight swings country punk before cutting abruptly for Nile to go about his verbal business. Comical and catchy, it’s good to see what Willie has found out about the heavenly provider. Some of the subject matter really gets you thinking about why the creator has done what he’s done. Of course, the answer would be…because he’s God.
Nile’s version of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” is a joyride through a nitroglycerin plant in a half-track loaded with warheads. The slamming rhythm machine of Alex Alexander and Johnny Pisano drives this no-nonsense cover like a stripped down SUV from Mad Max. Palmed and chugged electrics pause to make way for two-string bends and pentatonic pull-offs. Nile and company blow the roof off the choruses and, just when you think it doesn’t get any better, there’s a four count intro back into another eight measures of candy-coated punk rock goodness.
“Holy War” harkens back to a ‘60s Hendrix intro as Nile jabs into the verse with the question of the ages, “Holy war, what’s it for?” Verses are quiet as the band uses dynamic juxtaposition to make bridges and choruses soar miles high. Nile doesn’t sugarcoat it here as he says, “God is great, but you suck, your fingerprints were on the truck that blew up babies out of luck.” While some will say this is aimed at a certain demographic or religious splinter party, the fact is that it could be applied to just about everyone, and that is his point. As Nile so eloquently sums up, “God doesn’t need you, so suck on that.”
The rockabilly vibe of “Say Hey” swings from the roof beams. Guest trumpeter Lee Hogans lends traditional flair to this switchblade-toting blaster. Guitar flair groans under deep trem arm bends and echoed, upstroke chord hiccups. Background vocals courtesy of Leslie Mendelson are ultra capable and delicious as Nile stands out front for the common, everyday Joe.
“Sunrise In New York City” vamps along in Penny Lane flair. Deep-toned Wild West guitars glimmer under single-string runs as Pisano walks this sunny barrelhouse number up and down the sidewalk. This is another song that makes Nile’s wide-open compositional style so agreeable. Deep diving into the feel-good time of the Big Apple at its most vulnerable and peaceful, I can almost see myself sitting in the park and enjoying the view.
“The Crossing” features some of the most beautiful string and piano work on the record. I can almost picture St. James Gate off the south quays of Dublin on James Street. Morsberger is back to set up orchestral maneuvers, and he brings Suzanne Ornstein (viola, violin) to slather this emotional piece in the breathtaking solace of her sound. “The Crossing” is the story of human triumph and determination in the face of adverse conditions. As Willie says, “It’s a song of passage. Initially it was written about the Irish coming across the ocean to America for a better life. When I was writing it and when I play it live, I think about and talk about all of our ancestors coming from all over the globe for a better life.”
The disc ends with the upbeat “There’s No Place Like Home.” Nile and crew join in to drive home the welcoming point that there’s nothing like your own bed and couch at the end of the day. You can feel the weary welcome as he closes his own domicile door behind him.
American Ride is simply that. This is a look at the mind of an American troubadour. Nile’s stories are culled from countless hours in buses, diners, truck stops, on jets, stages, back roads and just about every other avenue of communicative journey there is.
Nile is in a zone that very few get to experience in a particular lifetime. This is the album that will make him a bona fide star.
As Bono from U2 recently said about Willie’s new record, “It’s a ride alright… on foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few Americas here to discover. The mythic, the magic, the very real. One of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America.”
Willie Nile will be celebrating his release of American Ride tonight, June 26, at the Highline Ballroom in NYC. For details on the show, American Ride and more, go to willienile.com.