The Wilryans isn’t a group or a band. It’s singer-songwriter-producer Michael W. Nelson and his newest album is Bell Tower, following The Hunting Years (Oarfin Records), Good Everything and Sun, Moon & Stars. It’s also a beautiful, highly original blend of smooth jazz, soft-rock, pop and a little more from an ace with better than 20 years experience and production credits on upwards of 50 albums.
The personnel for Bell Tower is Nelson (guitar, bass, keys, drums, percussion), Jeff Victor (keys), Stephen King (trumpet, fugel horn)—no, not the novelist trying out a sideline—Matt Darling (trombone), and Andy Nelson (sax) with Anthony Ihrig (dobro) and Joe Savage (pedal steel) and a killer collection of backup vocalists that includes the incredible Tonie Hughes. And you have to believe that every one of these pros came running at the opportunity to pitch in on such a state-of-the-art project.
The album leads off with the fairly glistening “Now She Knows,” which alternates between a samba-like verse and a perky Top-40-chorus, winding down to a subdued bridge, then returning to the bright chorus. It could serve as a blueprint for the premise that commercial music and artistic excellence are far from mutually exclusive.
The tongue-in-cheek charmer “Tony Orlando” shows, along with Nelson’s wry sense of humor, just how wide his range is, shifting to a lazy, dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass ballad arrangement that could’ve come straight off, say, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The lyrics will leave you cracking up as he croons with what sounds like all the heartfelt sincerity in the world, “Some girls like Mr. James Dean, some like Marlon Brando/ My girl likes a moustache/ Just like Tony Orlando/ Some folks like the guitar, some folks like the banjo/ I just want a moustache/ Just like Tony Orlando.” He goes on to honor to such famous cookie-duster owners as Tom Selleck, Gene Schallert, Freddie Mercury, and Charlie Chaplin in a list that includes “last but not least, Geraldo Rivera.” He closes with, “Some folks pass gas indoors, have to crack open a window/ Not if you got two nostril filters/ Just like Tony Orlando/ I don’t need no yellow ribbon, don’t need an old oak tree/ I just want me a soup strainer underneath my nose you see.”
There’s a photo, by the way, of Nelson completely clean-shaven with skin smooth as a baby’s butt and a blithely amused expression on his face. You get the distinct impression that for his cast iron chops the guy doesn’t take himself overly serious. “Sweet Melody,” like the title implies, is light and smooth with a George Harrison feel to it and a hint of Phil Collins and Phillip Bailey’s “Easy Lover.”
Bell Tower, bottom line, is a delightful outing by an amazingly gifted artist.