Picks and Pans Review: Tougher Than Leather
Nelson's first album of new material in nearly eight years is a peculiar mix. This is another of his screenplay-in-the-making concept albums; there is a more or less consistent plot, involving a rugged Westerner's devotion to a woman who likes roses. It includes a couple of model Nelson tunes: the lovely I Am the Forest and the wry Little Old-Fashioned Karma. But there's also a lot of repetition, as if this were, indeed, a sound track, and the storytelling gets muddied by inconsistencies. (At first the focal point seems to be an old gunfighter. Then he dies abruptly, and the tale focuses on a case of mistaken identity that leads to an execution. Is this a double feature?) More important, the music seems hindered by the shortcomings of Willie's band. While Nelson's loyalty to an old friend is admirable, drummer Paul English is a minor league musician. He's apparently incapable of anything in the way of subtlety or finesse, as he demonstrates, unhappily, on Karma. And while she is Willie's sister and longtime pianist, Bobbie Nelson is also too limited a musician to be supporting someone of her brother's skill and stature. Willie, though, is in fine voice and form, full of rough grace. Having him back writing and recording songs almost makes everything else seem unimportant. Almost.