© Michael Koster
There's something about a man's voice as it slides down the dark side of middle age and falls into itself. The pitch flattens, the lungs deflate just so, cracks and bristles reveal themselves, and strength is usurped by something vaguer and sadder and wiser. "Ain't it funny how an old broken bottle/Looks just like a diamond ring," John Prine sings in "Far From Me, from his new album of remakes of his own best-known songs. He could be singing about his own voice, because he does more justice to these songs now than he did decades ago when they were charting.
"Sam Stone," "Donald & Lydia," "Hello In There," "The Late John Garfield Blues"-all the hits are here, stripped down and mellow for the most part. Listen to the way his voice cracks in "Christmas In Prison" as he laments growing old behind bars-this typifies the texture of his voice on most of these numbers. Throughout there's a sadness in the vocals, which perhaps comes naturally with maturity, that lends sad songs an even sadder cloak. It's almost as if Prine's broken-hearts-and-dirty-windows lyrics have been waiting all these years for his voice to catch up.
One song that unfortunately does not benefit from the mature Prine's take is "Angel From Montgomery," his most classic song. (No, Bonnie Raitt did not write the damn thing.) The new version, in spite of some nice mandolin fills and Prine's warm vocals, sacrifices that gorgeous, church-pew fullness of the original for a melancholic sparseness. The song feels thin because the piano that filled out the original so beautifully is unfortunately missing.
The only up-tempo numbers included are the ever lovable and hokey "Grandpa Was A Carpenter," a brief character sketch about an old-fashioned, simple fella who spent his days chain smoking Camels and happily hammering nails and planks (remember, he's the guy who "voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war") and "Please Don't Bury Me," the most cheerful song about dying and getting cut into little pieces ever written. Prine always did have a sense of humor, and he's not willing to let this collection get too mired in the maudlin.
Critics will no doubt point out that remaking his own hits is the safe move, and a little puzzling since it comes on the heels of last year's so-so In Spite Of Ourselves, which is comprised mostly of cover material. Initially (or so the official press release says), Prine re-recorded the songs on Souvenirs so he could have his own master recordings for release in Europe. "I've always wanted to be popular in Germany," Prine jokes in the liner notes. After listening to the new versions, Oh Boy (Prine owns the label) decided to release them in America also, as, he says "I would like to be popular there as well."
Like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and others who have significantly contributed to American folk music, Prine's popularity has risen and dipped over the past three decades. With Souvenirs Prine proves that, like the best of his peers, he still has much to contribute. So yes, you can criticize him for going the easy route by recording an acoustic album of his own best-known tunes. But with songs this strong, and a voice this warm, who cares?
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