December 4, 2008
Allison Moorer’s latest album is an exercise in splendid restraint. Excepting the title track, a Moorer original, Mockingbird is a collection of songs written and performed by the women who serve as her musical idols. Moorer shows an overt dedication to honoring the timeless rhymes of her sistren, drawing inspiration from a diversity of musical styles that she whips into an intoxicating cocktail.
Mockingbird experiences a hiccup early, when Moorer chooses two fine songs marred by bland production. The cover of the Cash family classic “Ring of Fire” is presented as a ballad, with a fraction of the intensity that charged the original, and Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” suffers from its brittle, progressive rock arrangement.
When she recovers from this stretch, Moorer is simply sublime. To steer the project, Moorer called on Americana legend, Buddy Miller, a partner whose musical sensibilities prove to be a perfect fit for her muse. The result is a rich palette of sophisticated pop, gritty alt-country and sultry blues that lift the songstress to wonderful heights. The pulsating rhythms, spiraling in and out of musical orbit, agree with Moorer’s velvety vocal style. She doesn’t trouble herself with the wailing tendencies of so many young country divas. Under their watch, songs of subtlety are rendered virtually meaningless. But Moorer gives each note a tender reading that gets to the heart of the matter. Her powerful voice is finely-tuned, designed for optimum disclosure.
Moorer’s always been frank in her very public forum, and she willfully ignores any urge to conceal. No one seems as plainly doomed, at least on record, as Moorer. When she sings, the only possible verdict is melancholy. In her element, Moorer envelops the different shades of this emotion with deep-rooted understanding. She’s the bearer of bad news on Shelby Lynne’s “She Knows Where She Goes,” the sad tale of an emotionally-scarred woman trudging through loveless, lonely days. She’s the pissed-off victim that Gillian Welch first outlined in “Revelator.” And she’s the hardened survivor in the primal “Daddy, Goodbye Blues,” a Ma Rainey staple that’s a master class in swampy blues. Moorer throws herself into these moving moments, her voice echoing the uncertainty of the characters revealed in them.
But this isn’t a woman of startling snap decisions. Moorer never comes across as emotionally combustible, instead scoffing at the idea that a little thing called heartache could bring her down. Her self-doubting streak is matched only by a stubborn resilience. The beautiful reading of Julie Miller’s “Orphan Train” is a redeeming tonic, as she looks longingly towards the future and encourages all to overcome their hardships. It’s not a polite shove; it’s a resolute command to climb aboard. In contrast, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” with its gentle, sweeping strings, is a soft declaration for emotional emancipation, and an earnest vow to forgive past mistakes.
Years of experience present their own gifts, like the hard-won confidence that’s so evident on cool come-ons and songs of bittersweet longing. When she gets her teeth into a sensuous ballad, Moorer is transcendent. She admits she’s revved up and randy on Mockingbird’s most urgent request, Nina Samone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” It’s a blatant lust, reaching a climax when she curls around the words, “Come on, save my soul”, as the song fades to black. No doubt a frisky proposition for a possible suitor. Later, in the album closer, Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” she revives the country twang and yearning pain that’s laid bare in the original. It’s an intimate, yet hopeful, end to a redemptive album.
Moorer is a wily veteran who’s gained a modicum of success that seems unworthy of her talent, but she’s now unworried about fitting into the record industry’s narrow confines. She shows great nerve in cutting these well-known songs with equal parts grace and grit. Those with an appetite for vintage songs full of stylish eloquence, look no further. Mockingbird is a gutsy homage to great female singer-songwriters, engineered by a woman who’s earned her own place in that fine company.