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Album Review: Kelly Willis Goes Back to the Start With 'Back Being Blue'

"Oh modern world, you're killing me," Kelly Willis sings on "Modern World," the rock-tinged fourth track on her latest record, Back Being Blue.

It's a fitting sentiment for the album, Willis' first solo effort in 11 years. A lot has changed since Willis released 2007's Translated From Love and hit pause on her solo career to record two brilliant duet albums with her husband Bruce Robison: 2013's Cheater's Game and 2014's Our Year. 

Perhaps it was the uncertainty of day to day life in the modern world that led Willis to look back on the beginning.

While writing and recording the album, Willis has said she reflected on her early career, when she first moved to Austin, Texas and revisited the music that first inspired her — a mix of Brit pop, classic country and countrypolitan. Or as early press materials described it, "Nick Lowe meets Skeeter Davis meets Crystal Gayle."

The result is Back Being Blue, one of the year's best releases. Produced by her husband Bruce Robison, the album features Eleanor Whitmore of The Mastersons and Steve Earle and the Dukes, Mark Spencer of Son Volt and Trevor Nealoh of Band of Heathens.

The torchy title track evokes the R&B and countrypolitan-groove of Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," while album standout "Fool's Paradise" is a country two-stepper that puts fiddle and mandolin front and center.

Read More: The 12 Best Kelly Willis Songs, Ranked

Willis revisits the classic country songbook with a cover of the 1969 Skeeter Davis song "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter) and puts her own spin on the heart-rending Rodney Crowell-penned "We'll Do it For Love Next Time."

The gorgeous "Freewheeling" is a slow-burning, string-laden track that finds Willis reckoning with heartache over Eleanor Whitmore's soaring fiddle.

Willis ruminates on the passage of time again with the stunning "Afternoon's Gone Blind."

"All the songs I know, they could hardly fill an hour or a sugar bowl," Willis sings. "It's startin' to feel like the hours have holes and they're leaking out"

On Back Being Blue, Kelly Willis is back and it's a welcome return.

Kelly Willis will perform with Bruce Robison at Bruce and Kelly's Annual Holiday Show at the Paramount Theater on Dec. 15. John Fullbright will also perform at the show. 

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