Allison Moorer: “Mockingbird”

When an artist has risen to acclaim largely on the strength of her powerhouse vocal qualities– as with someone like Bettye Lavette, or even Emmylou Harris– she can get away with releasing albums of songs written entirely by other people; they’re not “covers albums,” they’re exercises in the noble art of interpretation. When an artist has staked her claim– at least partially– on her skills as a songwriter, though… well, then an album of cover songs usually can’t help but feel like a trifle, something tossed-off, a stopgag between real albums.

Maybe that’s fair and maybe it’s not, but Allison Moorer doesn’t do much to challenge it on her new collection, Mockingbird— which features twelve songs, only one of which was written by the artist herself. Though not a bad album by any stretch– some of these cuts are highly enjoyable– it stands in stark and ironic contrast to the collection of Dusty Springfield covers that Moorer’s sister, Shelby Lynne, released just a few weeks before. That album showed just how meaningful a covers set could be, as it not only honored the late Springfield, but also expanded our appreciation of Lynne’s skills as a singer and an interpreter. As for Moorer’s set, her gifts have never been in question, nor has the quality of any of these songs, but, for the most part, her performances here don’t do anything to elevate our appreciation of her singing, or to make a case for why any of these songs particularly needed to be covered in the first place.

There are some small pleasures here, to be sure, but that’s all it is– a minor, modest album that feels more like a holdover or a teaser than a main attraction. Part of the problem is that there’s no clear focus or unity of purpose here; Moorer says all of these songs were written from a similar perspective, but, aside from the fact that all of the authors were women, there doesn’t seem to be anything unifying these tracks, thematically or stylistically, which makes it feel more like a fling than a substantial addition to Moorer’s canon.

The same problem could have capsized Cat Power’s recent cover album, Jukebox, but she was wise enough to unify the seemingly unrelated songs with a common sound, steeping every track in the same dusky Memphis blues as her last album of original material, The Greatest. And that brings us to another fault with Mockingbird— these songs all come from such entirely different places that they seem like they wouldn’t belong on the same album together– and indeed, it’s a little jarring to go from the lyrical simplicity of “Ring of Fire” to the more intense and complex poetry of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” or from the leisurely chamber pop of Kate McGarrigle’s “Go, Leave” to the ferocity of Gillian Welch’s “Time (The Revelator).” And yet, when producer Buddy Miller– bizarrely off his game here– tries to unify these songs, he ends up robbing many of them of their edge or their distinctiveness, bogging the whole record down in an immaculate studio sheen that’s slick and professional, but not very interesting– so that a slowed-down version of “Ring of Fire,” for example, comes across as rather sleepy and redundant.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some wonderful moments here– “Time (The Revelator)” is drenched in dramatic organ to powerful effect, and Lynne’s “She Knows Where She Goes” sounds lovely in its more organic setting. But even these songs don’t depart from their original incarnations enough to truly justify Moorer covering them here, nor do they allow her to stretch herself as a singer any more than her past albums have– which means that, while there are some worthwhile moments here, the album as a whole is, at best, a very minor Allison Moorer record.

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