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Published: 2009/11/09
by Brian Robbins

Works Progress Administration
WPA

WPA/Umami Music

Call WPA anything you want to; just don’t call ‘em a supergroup. If you have any compassion in your soul at all, you’ll come up with a different way to refer to them.

Do your own research and I guarantee you’ll find that the label “supergroup” carries a curse similar to claiming that a just-arrived-on-the-scene young male singer/songwriter is “the new Bob Dylan.” In the case of the solo artist, it’s almost like making a reservation for the guy back in his folks’ basement apartment in preparation for his flaming, smoking, screaming nose-dive and crash after burning out attempting to live up the hype. Supergroups don’t even have it that good: the almost-cliché implosion of egos that usually goes with that title ends up so badly that nobody wants any of the band members in their basement apartment… not even their mother. But don’t take my word for it – look it up.

Anyway, in the case of WPA, just accept the assortment of assembled talent and say something like “Wow – what a band!” and leave the hoodoo S-word curse for someone else. These folks are too nice to implode.

I mean, dig the roster: first, you have a core group of Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins on guitar, Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), and Luke Bulla, who you may know as the guy ripping up the fiddle in Jerry Douglas’ band. Add to that a bench of talent that includes yet another Nickel Creeker (Sara Watkins on fiddle), Tom Petty’s keyboard ace Benmont Tench, two of Elvis Costello’s gang (bassist Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas – whose drumming also graces the latest Yonder Mountain album), and pedal steel wiz Greg Leisz … and out of that lineup, you have a minimum of five vocalists … see? That supergroup tag just tugs on your pant leg begging to be used, doesn’t it? Well, forget about it and just listen to the music.

Though Phillips leads the way on the group’s recently-released debut with writing credits on half of the album’s cuts, it truly is a band effort. Between Bulla’s lyrics (“If you can’t hold your head up/Then don’t hold your heart out”) and Leisz’ wailing-in-the-stairwell pedal steel, “Cry For You” just plain aches. Need more pining? There’s Sara Watkins’ cover of the Pretenders’ “I Go To Sleep,” Tench’s piano swirling around her vocal. (She and Tench will do it to you again on the album-closer “The Price.”) Sara’s brother Sean’s no-apologies tribute to the art of being perpetually wasted (“Paralyzed”) has some of the best yearbook-worthy lines since Keith Richards’ “I wasn’t lookin’ too good, but I was feelin’ real well” – along with a concentrated burst of killer steel from Mr. Leisz. Phillips’ “End This Now” just needs Wolfman Jack introducing it to complete the doo-wop mood. (Yes – doo-wop; even with fiddle and pedal steel it sounds and feels like doo-wop, I’m telling you.)

Never overly poppy, country, or … anything, Works Progress Administration is actually a neat album by a bunch of talented folks – diverse, but establishing a sound that’s theirs at the same time.

Just don’t call ‘em a supergroup.

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