The music of the Little Willies sounds exactly like what it is: a group of very talented musicians larking about, killing time.
While this practiced looseness is the outfit's most appealing trait, it is also its biggest weakness. Taking seriously any of the songs selected on For the Good Times, the band's first effort in six years -- the follow-up to 2006's self-titled, low-key debut -- is a tall order.
Casual, albeit performed with the kind of focused determination skilled artists bring to bear on even the most featherweight trifle, this knockabout record is less a showcase for collaboration than an opportunity for Norah Jones, Richard Julian, Jim Campilongo, Lee Alexander and Dan Reiser to simply hang loose and display a collective knack for good taste.
Nearly all of For the Good Times is an exercise in idol worship; many tracks are covers of country standards like Loretta Lynn's Fist City or the Kris Kristofferson tune which gives the LP its title. Jones and Julian trade off on vocal duties, frequently backing the other up. As has been her MO in recent years, Jones continues to be something of a vocal chameleon, comfortably slipping into the sultry Nashville register as easily as she croons the hook to a hip-hop track or pushes her own jazz-inflected pop into edgy new territory.
That said, the Little Willies manage one of the most sedate takes on Fist City imaginable; Jones dials down the menace, making the threat of "'Cause I'll grab you by the hair a your head" seem downright innocuous.
Produced by Alexander, For the Good Times is perhaps most notable for the curatorial depth of the track list.
Apart from the recognizable cuts (Lynn's Fist City, Kristofferson's For the Good Times, Dolly Parton's Jolene and Lefty Frizzell and Jim Beck's If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time) and Campilongo's original contribution, Tommy Rockwood, much of the record explores the lesser-known side of superstars like Willie Nelson's Permanently Lonely or Johnny Cash's Wide Open Road. Some of Music City's hidden-in-plain sight chestnuts, such as Ralph Stanley's I Worship You or Irving Mills and Cliff Friend's Lovesick Blues, also turn up here.
Style can count for a lot when musicians choose to skimp on substance. In the case of the Little Willies, what's enjoyable also feels like a deliberately missed opportunity. I'm not begrudging these folks their fun, but these Good Times would be a lot more so if there was something to latch onto besides bonhomie.