New Yorker Willie Nile is often regarded as a musician’s musician, his admirers including Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams, the latter quoted by AUK’s Gordon Sharpe in his 2020 interview with Nile as commenting “Willie Nile is a great artist. If there was any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me”.
Nile is also a tireless and exciting live performer, touring in the USA and across Europe, having strong followings here and in Italy and Spain, and has five live albums to his name, together with no fewer than 14 studio albums. My choice for ‘Classic Americana Album’ this time round is his 2006 release ‘Streets of New York’. Introduced to this album by an American friend, on a first listen this sounded like a greatest hits collection–and it’s remained a firm favourite ever since.
Production is spot on throughout, in perfect support for Nile’s fine songwriting, and the varied musical styles are united by his distinctive vocals, and his love for an anthemic chorus. Opening track ‘Welcome to My Head’ has a Springsteen-esque feel to it, while ‘Asking Annie Out’ has a great guitar riff supporting the repeated refrain of the title. ‘The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square’ features fine observational lyrics “There were hipsters and popstars and posers galore/ the kind of location politicians adore/and the blind man was laughing asleep on the stair/the day I saw Bo Diddley on Washington Square”, against an arrangement with a Celtic feel, and a sing along chorus which would go down a storm in any bar.
The same observational knack shines through on ‘Faded Flower of Broadway’, mid tempo but with plenty of bombast, and echoes of the Byrds in the 12 string guitar licks “She looks the other way/ a painted smile from yesterday/she left her dreams out in the rain/she doesn’t see me there/ offers up a silent prayer/and swears that she can taste the sweet champagne/what does she dream of when she is dancing/and when did she learn how to fly/cos the faded flower of Broadway shines her buttons with her tears”. You’re there on the sidewalk with Nile watching her dancing, oblivious to the world around her.
Nile’s politics have always been a big part of his music, in support of the underdog, but with a positive ‘we can do it together’ spin, as on ‘When One Stands‘, with a reggae feel, while on ‘Cellphones Ringing (in the Pockets of the Dead)’ Nile’s inspiration is the aftermath of the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid.
Title track ‘Streets of New York’ closes the album, a stripped back arrangement of piano and vocals with harmonica outro, a moving tribute to his beloved hometown “The streets of New York/have faces only mothers could love/from rich boys in silk/to panhandlers who can’t get enough/drifters ride on the subway/hustlers roam through the night/tourists come back again and again/until they get it right/on the streets of New York”.
One of those albums which keeps calling you back – a true classic.
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