This Week in Music, June 25, 2013: Willie Nile invites us to take an “American Ride”

Willie Nile: American Ride

New release (River House/Loud & Proud/RED; tour dates)
Photo by Cristina Arrigoni

Willie Nile’s latest album may be called American Ride, but he’s been taking us on that journey for more than 30 years now. And although his recording career has had its fits and starts, he’s been on a consistent roll since releasing Streets of New York in 2006. Much of his recent work, starting with the Streets predecessor Beautiful Wreck of the World in 1999, has been earnest and, at times, intense. Now comes Ride, and it’s almost as if Nile is thinking, after all of that admirably hard work, it’s high time to relax, roll down the window, and shoot the breeze behind the wheel.

That said, Nile is an artist who can make shooting the breeze sound like risking it all.

Take, for example, the opening track, “This Is Our Time.” On the surface, the music may recall a typical jaunt from the power-pop glory days of the late 1970s. But Nile’s voice, rising gloriously at the end of verse lines, transforms the song into something epic. Likewise, the lyrics of the chorus may seem like a straightforward bit of boosterism . . .

This is our time, this is our place
This is our moment in the human race
This is our journey, this is our climb
This is our place and this is our time

. . . but hitched to the snappy delivery of Nile and company, those words become a rally cry for the average guy.

And all of that is accomplished in just over the ideal playing time of 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

There’s plenty of similarly brisk rock & roll, as bright as a perfect summer day, in “Life on Bleecker Street,” “God Laughs,” and “Say Hey.” For good measure, the primarily electric American Ride also takes us down some acoustic Americana roads in “She’s Got My Heart” and especially the title track, a musical/personal travelogue from the Jersey Shore to the California coast. And when you need to park yourself on a barstool for a drink and an Irish-style singalong, there’s the piano ballad of “The Crossing.”

Working behind the scenes are some crucial veteran collaborators. Co-producer Stewart Lerman helps bring a crisp but punchy sound. Sessionman extraordinaire (and fifth Eagle) Steuart Smith works his magic on not only several guitars but also banjo and harmonium. Meanwhile, Matt Hogan, the guitarist in Nile’s new band, isn’t to be overlooked — nor is the rhythm section of drummer Alex Alexander and, particularly, bassist Johnny Pisano, whose virtuosic playing deserves a shout-out.

Longtime co-writer Frankie Lee assists with four songs; “If I Ever See the Light” is Springsteenian, but I prefer the simpler pleasures of “She’s Got My Heart,” “The Crossing,” and “Sunrise in New York City.” The Alarm’s Mike Peters lends a hand on the title track. And then there’s Eric Bazilian, who teams up with Nile for “God Laughs.” Basically, it’s a sequel to (or an alternate-universe take on) “One of Us,” the Joan Osborne hit that Bazilian wrote. But whereas that song was a serious-sounding slowburn, this one is a lighthearted, peppy tune with a punchline in the chorus — which is trumped by an even better, musical punchline later on. Nile balances that in his rebuke of “Holy War,” with the following message to all those who would wage it, in whoever’s name: “God is great. You’re not.”

Ride done, the traveler realizes that “There’s No Place Like Home.” Just a sweet tune inspired by a sentimental movie? Here again, in the hands and the voice of this traveler, a song becomes something much more — something that, like a classic American film, we seem to have known and enjoyed all our lives. Listening to this album, you could say the same about Willie Nile himself.