Title - 'Ruby's Torch' (Rounder)
Artist - Nanci Griffith
With the en masse of high profile acts (ranging from Barry Manilow to Rod Stewart to Michael Bolton) going back to the vaults to resurrect the standards of yore, what makes Griffith's latest attempt of covers essential? Unlike her peers, Griffith makes no attempt to circumscribe her Texan drawl and she brings to many of these old chestnuts a folk-like ambience that comes across as intimately tepid. Further, her choice of material centers around the theme of unrequited love. With her world weary vocals laced with a callously girlish delicacy, she offers a lucid perspecuity to the complexities of heartache that is dolorously alluring. Moreover, instead of just tackling other people's work, Griffith has unabashedly re-visited two entries from her own catalog, namely "Late Night Grande Hotel" and "Brave Companion of the Road." Backed by her Blue Moon Orchestra and recalling her 1999 "Dust Bowl Symphony," this is a string-laden ballad-hued album. However, unlike her 1999 predecessor, the backings do not overwhelm. Rather, the gentle strings and sesnitive piano complement her, making her vocals the cynosure of this project.
Of the covers, most breathtaking is Griffith's take of Sandy Mason's "When I Dream." An ode of longing for true love, Griffith strips this gorgeous ballad from the artifical sheen of professionalism from Crystal Gayle's original rendition, making the desire for love even more engaging and real. Similarly, Griffith's read of Charles Goodrum's "Bluer Than Blue," far surpasses Michael Johnson's somehow monolithic read by giving it a relatively more animated delivery. While on Tom Waits' "Ruby's Arms," Griffith tells the lugubrious tale of a lover leaving not as a bystander, but she sings as if it were from a page in her diary. As a tribute to her mother, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," a sober ballad of loneliness often associated with Frank Sinatra, gets the full-on sepia toned lush that conjures up an old fashioned charm so befitting of the song's tenor.
When hearing her two originals side by side with these classics, Griffith's compositions do not sound malapropos. The title track of her 1991 CD "Late Night Grande Hotel," a track written by Griffith in the loneliness of touring, still sends out pangs of ache when she sings "I feel like Garbo in this late night grande hotel/Cause living alone is all I've ever done well." While she does not deviate too much from her original read of "Brave Companion of the Road," this time, the added strings bring out a warm affinity for those battling life alone. However, why she would reprise Jimmy Webb's "If These Walls Could Speak" of which she had had already recorded earlier is behooving.
Over the years, Griffith has had gone through multi-permutations: from folk to country to pop to now torch, but she has never been averse to leave her own mark. Unlike lesser artists, Griffith does not just go through the motions and tackle these paeans with a karoke professionalism. Rather, she infuses each note with heartfelt emotions and her ingrained ardor garned from her years of singing songs that deal with the heart. And unlike others who are bashful about including their own compositions with these evergreeens, Griffith's showcases her own craftsmanship vis-à-vis her own enduring classics that stand toe to toe with these masterpieces. In short, when Griffith burns the torch, these songs light up with fervor and affability.