Taking its name from President Roosevelt’s 1939 New Deal initiative, Works Progress Administration (WPA) is a conglomeration of similarly minded musicians, crafting music that is meant to inspire and enlighten while it entertains. An impressive list of stellar talent has had a hand in steering the music that has found its way onto the self-titled debut record, due September 15. The founding members are listed as Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), and Luke Bulla (Jerry Douglas Band/Ricky Skaggs/Lyle Lovett), but substantial contributors include Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Imposters/Randy Newman), and Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello and the Imposters/Cracker). The founding fathers are regulars who interact at the legendary LA club, Largo, which is the very place Phillips recorded his 2003 live record.
As if that isn’t enough name dropping, WPA partnered with Jim Scott to do the engineering; he’s worked with the likes of Wilco and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. So with all this talent on board, is this project right on track or a messy train wreck?
The twelve songs include some of the “best” of unrecorded material from various members, as well as some tunes specifically written for the project. Remarkably, the record has tremendous cohesion, despite the myriad of styles and vocal tones each team member brings to the table. I’ll admit I was attracted to WPA largely because of Phillips, whose solo efforts and work with Toad remain some of my favorite recordings of all time. For those of you who share my taste, be warned that WPA is markedly country and Americana, with lots of fiddle and pedal steel. For those familiar with the 2004 Nickel Creek-Phillips collaboration, Mutual Admiration Society, I think you’d agree that WPA sounds like a logical extension of that effort. It isn’t too Hee Haw (with exception of “Wedding Or A Wake”), but it is the most country-flavored release of Phillips’ career.
Of course, this is not a Glen Phillips record – WPA is more like a modern day version of The Eagles, with Phillips, Bulla, and the Watkins siblings taking more or less equal turns on lead vocals, with plenty of masterful harmonies throughout (in keeping with the Eagles analogy, they even have a song called with “Already Gone” in the title!). As with most of the other work from these artists, the lyrics are almost always reflective and philosophical.
There is a good mix of slow versus mid-tempo songs, with the disc lending itself well as a soundtrack for watching sunsets on the back porch. Two of the most enjoyable and more upbeat numbers are right up front, “Always Have My Love” and “Good As Ever”, and the haunting ballad “Rise Up” is deeply compelling (all sung by Phillips). Several of the other highlights from the record include the buoyant little ditties “Paralyzed” and “You’re Already Gone”. The album’s closing piano ballad, “The Price”, tenderly sung by Sara Watkins, is one of the finest songs I’ve heard this year; it was actually written by Tench more than two decades ago during his tenure with the Heartbreakers.
A more appropriate name for this project could not have been selected. No one is a hero in this outfit, and when egos are sacrificed for the betterment of the whole, you get a success story like the first record from WPA. While some of these tracks take two or three spins to appreciate, each listen brings a new reward. Today’s music world needs a New Deal, and the biz could learn a great deal from the spirit driving WPA.
iPOD-worthy: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 12
Take note that if you join the mailing list through their main web site, you can get a free mp3 of “Always Have My Love”.
Check out a video detailing the story of WPA (the band, this is not a lesson in the Great Depression)