Out Here

Like a present

Bruce Robison
Boar's Nest Records

The romantic habits of talented--or at least well-known--people often seem to get a tedious amount of attention, but the fact that Bruce Robison is married to Kelly Willis makes such perfect sense that it's hard not to mention, especially when Robison's latest release, Wrapped, is such a perfect companion to Willis' Fading Fast (1996). Both albums are brilliant evocations so succinct and sharp as to transcend country qualifiers like "alt-" or "new," damn near finely drawn enough to take the country label past Americana and clear into the realm of American. Even more impressive is the fact that while Willis' fine release was a four-song EP, Robison's effort maintains its bright momentum over a full 11 songs.

In less perceptive hands, Wrapped would still be a crowd-pleasing tour through type--the road song, the break-up song, the bar song, the family song--but Robison's acuity as a songwriter makes his work much more exposition than exhibit. "See You Around" pairs the inevitability of departure with that of new love, the bitterness of farewell and the sweetness of just-around-the-next-bend lying together on the tongue; "End Like That" (co-written with Monte Warden) arcs from a tough guy practicing his lines to a stunned dumpee wondering why in five quick verses.

Expertly produced by Lloyd Maines, Wrapped more than lives up to the promise of Robison's self-titled 1995 release. Nine songs were written by him, two of those with help from others: the aforementioned "End Like That," and "I Dream Too," a story of realization and rededication co-written with Jim Lauderdale (as with anyone else, you can judge a songwriter by the company he keeps). In addition to an aching duet with Willis on a cover of the Louvin Brothers' "When I Love You," he does her "Lonely For You" (co-written with Paul Kennerly), but the real example of how the styles of him and his mate (he and Willis were married last year) dovetail is his version of "She Don't Care," previously done as "He Don't Care" on Fading Fast. Still true to the tune's heart, Robison's version is subtler and somehow gentler than Willis' rendition, heavy with her CenTex accent and Dave Boquist's banjo.

Of course Robison--brother of honky-tonker Charlie Robison--has always been almost painfully upfront about his desire to be not a performer, or an act, or merely a singer, but a songwriter. More an artist than a technician or even a craftsman, Robison has long aspired to the kind of work that can, at its best, transcend genre and style and just plain speak. With this album, he appears to have that (ahem) Wrapped.

--Matt Weitz