Nanci Griffith: still hard to resist, still a conundrum.
Ninian Dunnett 2012-02-20
Nanci Griffith is a darn conundrum. Twenty albums in, and here she is landing square on the fence – like so often before – between mainstream country-pop and something truly original.
Still, it’s hard to resist her. It’s not just the mix of elfin beauty, Texas twang and perky delivery – the lady is a charmer, with a genial line in storytelling that is most perfectly captured, for this reviewer, on live versions of her rites-of-passage ballad Love at the Five and Dime.
She’s been one of the great unsung patrons of historic talent, too, bringing key figures from the past like Buddy Holly’s Crickets and folkie Dave Van Ronk into the studio and out on the road with her band, The Blue Moon Orchestra. And if there’s a suspicion that her success has been earned more by the personality conveyed in an edgy, wholly individual voice than by her music, there are worse routes to stardom.
The strongest song here, Hell No (I’m Not Alright), makes the point. Griffith hollers out the inarguable sentiment of its chorus with a relish that should attract future grumpy anthem-singers – and outflanks the sketchiness of the song in the process. Pacing is another of this short album’s strengths. There’s variety in its unfolding, with a brisk shot of energy two-thirds of the way through from a confident reading of Griffith’s 20-year-old Just Another Morning Here.
Not everything works, though. The Texan has always had a weakness for a sentimental ballad, and the set alternates tearjerkers from other writers with the more personal, confessional material of the album’s six new songs.
Recorded in Griffith’s Nashville home, the production is busy with tambourine rattles, bongo taps and pinging triangles. Downbeat words are buoyed up by light pop textures, leaning heavily for character on the fragile virtues of a voice that, while full of expression, is not designed for pop. Still ahead then, we must hope, is the record that will give that distinctive instrument an irresistible setting.