John Prine remains one of the greatest songwriters the U.S. has ever produced, but he’s not a poet—the marriage of melody and words is integral to his art. That also help explain why he takes occasional detours to make albums of songs by other people. For Better, or Worse (Oh Boy), released in September, is a kind of sequel to his wonderful 1999 record In Spite of Ourselves—both consist of duets with a slew of strong female singers. As serious as Prine is about his own work, he also adores the ancestral music that’s helped shape him—especially country.
Prine has won a few bouts with vicious types of cancer (in his neck in 1996 and his left lung in 2013), so his weathered voice has earned every crack, rasp, and strained note. These new duets offer a consistently convincing blend of sour (his) and sweet (theirs). Most of the songs were originally sung by one artist, and in those cases Prine and his partners split up the verses, cleverly turning the songs into dialogues: he sings the George Jones classic “Color of the Blues” with blues-rocker Susan Tedeschi and the Hank Williams standard “Cold Cold Heart” with Miranda Lambert. Other guests include Alison Krauss, Lee Ann Womack, Amanda Shires, and Prine’s wife Fiona.
My favorite songs here are the ones that were originally recorded as duets, particularly of the feudin’-and-fightin’ variety—a hallowed country tradition. Kacey Musgraves goes at Prine on their version of “Mental Cruelty,” originally recorded by Buck Owens and Rose Maddox, and nobody jousts with Prine like the great Iris DeMent, who sings on two songs originally cut by Loretta Lynn with Ernest Tubb. The album opens with a spirited reading of “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out,” and today’s 12 O’Clock Track is their version of the comparably somber “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be.” Prine performs Friday at the Chicago Theatre.
Frantz Loriot/Manuel Perovic Notebook Large Orchestra, Urban Furrow (Clean Feed)
Dennis Bovell, Dennis Bovell Presents 4th Street Orchestra: Ah Who Seh? Go Deh!/Leggo! Ah-Fi-We-Dis (EMI)
R. Andrew Lee, Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music (Irritable Hedgehog)
Earth Tongues, Ohio (Neither/Nor)
Scott Cazan, Ingress (A Wave Press)