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Lula Wiles

What Will We Do – 2019 (Smithsonian Folkways)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Lula Wiles

Plenty. That's the answer to the question posed by Lula Wiles' CD "What Will We Do?" Lula Wiles has unique talents and sensibilities for the long haul.

Lula Wiles is a three-piece assemblage brimming with harmonies and songwriting chops. Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin comprise the band with Burke taking the lead vocals on most of the selections with Buckland and Obomsawin laying in sweet harmonies. The harmonies are Everly-esque, settling in with a richness, texture and seeming simplicity, which misdirect from their weight. All three Lulas (Lulae?) contribute to the songwriting. As if the harmonies were not enough, the writing is first rate.

Lula Wiles wields some keen insights into the human condition. All three hail from Maine, and there must be something in the air there that infuses the clever lyrics with sardonic depth. The subject matter veers from love ("The Pain of Loving You," "Love Gone Wrong") to control ("Nashville, Man," "Leave Me Now") to addiction (Obomsawin's "Morphine") to politics ("Good Old American Values").

The songwriting is powerful, the lyrics evocative of a steely fist in lace glove. In Lula Wiles' universe, no deed (bad or good) goes unpunished. Revenge is a dish best served in a three-chord casserole.

The best songwriters capture the moment in which the work is created. Lula Wiles achieves this, exploring personal disappointment, rough relationship patches or small town life. The sharpest attacks are not directed to people, necessarily, but to political culture. "Good Old American Values" starts in turn of the (20th) century waltz time and delivers its body blows with casual, but knowing viciousness:
"Good old American cartoons.
Indians and Cowboys and saloons.
It's all history now.
We hold the pen anyhow.
Drawin' good old American cartoons"

That's good stuff. But the listener will be drawn back to the harmonies and the admirable comfort that the three players share with their material and each other. The collection's title cut is also the end piece: a straight up a capella query of the future. But Lula Wiles suggest that they already know the answer to the question "What Will We Do?" They'll share it in fair measure. For now, they are content to show that the present is well in hand.