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Album Review

Drifting off with Nelson’s ‘Classic’

August 31, 2009

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Pop
Willie Nelson Americna Classic
Blue Note
ESSENTIAL “Baby It’s Cold Outside’’

In 1978, deep into his country outlaw period, Willie Nelson pulled a rabbit out of his cowboy hat. He demonstrated what it really means to be a renegade by making “Stardust,’’ a collection of pop standards that raised a middle finger to fashion, conventional wisdom, and the cries of career suicide from Columbia Records.

It was a great, weird album - Nelson’s mainstream breakthrough - and 31 years later, “American Classic’’ is being billed as the long-awaited sequel. But a few things have changed. Namely, standards collections from pop artists are de rigueur and Nelson’s trusty touring band has been replaced by a tasteful cocktail-jazz unit.

For those reasons, “American Classic’’ doesn’t make the indelible mark its predecessor did. These songs drift by with limpid elegance (“The Nearness of You’’), subdued swing (“Fly Me to the Moon’’), or spry congeniality (“On the Street Where You Live’’). Nelson’s craggy voice - as ever, a marvel of laid-back, intuitive phrasing - is a pleasure, but laid-back turns sleepy on too many of the tracks.

Among the notable exceptions is a duet with Norah Jones on “Baby It’s Cold Outside.’’ The grizzled country star and the sultry songbird have real chemistry, which brings out a wonderfully sly side of Nelson’s personality. The same cannot be said of Nelson’s spark-free collaboration with Diana Krall on “If I Had You.’’ The album closes with a refined, sophisticated remake of “Always on My Mind’’ that’s soothing to the ears but hardly a heartbreaker. (Out now) JOAN ANDERMAN