Gutsy trouper that she is, Marianne Faithfull has always striven beyond the limitations of her voice, finding compensation in brave choices of material and intriguing settings
This third collaboration with inventive producer Hal Willner is no exception: there are songs here by old reliables like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Randy Newman, but also striking covers of bands such as The Decemberists and Espers, with material by the likes of Eno, Morrissey and Judee Sill bridging the decades between.
For much of the album, Willner's arrangements are spot on, winkling out new interpretations of "Dear God Please Help Me", "Black Coffee". In Billie Holiday's "Solitude", five clarinets from right across the range, stitched together with threads of Marc Ribot's wah-wah guitar. Ribot's touch is flawless throughout, while Dirty Three/Bad Seeds violinist Warren Ellis dominates his three tracks, especially the duet with Cat Power on "Hold On Hold On".
Most of the highlights are on the first disc: Randy Newman's celebrated song about the Dusseldorf child-murderer, "In Germany Before The War", receives a sombre setting of crepuscular woodwind and piano, and the druggy torpor of Espers' "Children Of Stone" is impressive, with Rufus Wainwright adding tart high harmonies to Faithfull's wracked contralto. And the decision to treat Dolly's "Down From Dover" as a sort of weatherbeaten blues is a masterstroke. Likewise, having Lenny Pickett's contrabass sarrusophone honking hippo-like in the depths of a ragtime blues arrangement of Bessie Smith's "Easy Come, Easy Go" brilliantly evokes the hedonist splendour of lines like "Don't want to be a skinny vamp or nothin' like that/My daddy always knows where it's at".
But the album is ultimately spoilt by the ghastly treatment meted out to Smokey Robinson's gorgeous "Ooh Baby Baby", one of the most sublime endearments in pop history. Sadly, it's done as a duet with Antony Hegarty, whose vocal mannerisms are, if anything, more idiosyncratic and peculiar than Marianne's; together, they clash like an iceberg scraping away at the hull of the Titanic, A late attempt to salvage the track by funking things up only makes matters worse, compounding its lack of grace with charmless gaucheness. Elsewhere, the duets are more successful, with Nick Cave surprisingly restrained on the Decemberists' "The Crane Wife 3", and Keith Richards virtually inaudible on Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home".
Overall, then, another brave assault on musical diversity from Faithfull, in typically intriguing musical livery.
Pick of the album: 'Down From Dover', 'Solitude','Hold On Hold On', 'Easy Come, Easy Go'