With Keller Williams’ impersonation of a hyperactive song-surfing jukebox, his live performances regularly run from originals to instrumentals and cover tunes with all the speed that looping technology and his fertile mind allows. With a preview of sorts coming from shows over the past several years, it was only a matter of time before he would gather his catalog of musical interests into a full-length set.
On his first-ever all-covers collection, Thief, Williams adapts a dozen alt-rock, roots and country tunes to a bluegrass style that suits the album’s collaborators, the Keels — husband and wife duo, Larry on vocals and guitar and Jenny on bass and vocals. Just like Grass, the first album he did with the Keels, their solid and steady presence grounds the tunes to terra firma. Without them, the 12 songs would run the risk of zipping by in Keller’s Red Bull-like energy, which may work in the excited context of a concert setting but could get awful tiresome for personal listening.
The sped up version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” runs by in a manner similar to what a solo Keller has done live as well as the take on Cracker’s “Teen Angst,” but the tempo takes a breather during “Uncle Disney” (Drive-By Truckers), the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” and “Switch and the Spur” (The Raconteurs), which makes the number sound as if its origins are derived from Tenacious D rather than the super-power pop makers. A well-known Deadhead, Keller tackles “Mountains of the Moon,” shifting from a gravelly voice to his usual honey-dipped tenor in order to provide the song the wizened edge that it needs.
Besides the choice of material, what’s most impressive is the ability for many of the tracks to jump genres. “Bath of Fire” from The Presidents of the USA balances the fence that separates the alt rock act’s twisted pop and its bluegrass transformation. “Sex and Candy” (Marcy Playground) achieves this as well.
Bookending the album are two songs written by Kris Kristofferson, “Don’t Cuss That Fiddle” opens the album and “The Year 2003 Minus 25” which closes it. Both retain the grizzled country spirit from the originals; the latter not only found off the Waylon & Willie release but maintaining an added poignancy since it cynically a recreation with a purpose.