Without a Song

Without a Song, Willie Nelson's latest adventure in standards land, is a tame safari. In ten slow and sentimental ballads, Nelson circles his prey laconically, drawing a bead on love with his slow, Southern nasality but never shooting to kill. The familiar vocal hesitations and throat-catchings are all in place, but straightforward readings of these mostly less-than-spectacular tunes are tossed off by Nelson with little energy.

The basic ingredients for a good record are here — believable material and a tried-and-true team of players, including the English brothers' backbeat, Grady Martin's guitar pleasantries and guest vocalizing by heartthrob Julio Iglesias — but even these don't quite jell. Limp arrangements reminiscent of a bar mitzvah band's cursory thumping are underscored by Bee Spears' one-note-in-four bass and producer Booker T. Jones' omnipresent funeral-parlor organ. The magic that suffused "Stardust" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow" — two great cuts from previous albums — was created by mixing offbeat instruments, elements of bluegrass and swinging country, and enthusiasm. These qualities are sorely missing here. The Julio Iglesias collaboration is an almost throwaway rendering of "As Time Goes By." Even this fails to rouse Nelson from his lethargy. Don't play it again, Willie.

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