When Nanci Griffith devotes the bulk of an album to other people’s songs, the selections had better be superlative. In that regard, this countrypolitan-meets-cabaret set of torch songs scores high marks. The eleven tracks include three Tom Waits tunes, a Jimmy Webb number, and a Sinatra standard.
An impeccable vocalist, Griffith comes to this project sans many of the mannerisms affiliated with torch-singer icons such as Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Marianne Faithfull. Her timbre is silvery smooth, not Marlboro-and-whiskey coarse; her pitch dead-on; her vibrato does not register a 5 or 6 on the Richter scale.
What’s left? Interpretation and phrasing. At the start, Griffith errs on the safe side. Her “When I Dream” sounds like the glacial reverie of a very talented suburban mom; trimming some of the orchestration might have helped). Her reading of Waits’ “Ruby’s Arms” wants for gravity; an odd detachment undercuts the extended narrative of leaving a lover for good.
But by the fourth or fifth number, Griffith loosens up. She finds startling dimension in the AM radio chestnut “Bluer Than Blue”. New renditions of her own “Brave Companion Of The Road” and “Late Night Grande Hotel” are especially stirring, as is the curious closer, “Drops From The Faucet”.
When Emmylou Harris covers a song, she owns it. On Ruby’s Torch, Griffith seems more interested in an extended lease agreement. Her thoughtful versions of these well-chosen songs won’t make you forget the originals entirely, but they won’t send you racing to revisit them any time soon either.