Just a couple of weeks after her older sister, Shelby Lynne, dropped one of the better covers albums of the last few years, along comes Allison Moorer with one of her own. It’s an album that, like Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’, owes its successes as much to a clear sense of purpose as to its singer’s exceptional voice. For Mockingbird, Moorer set out to explore “the feminine voice,” and she has assembled a collection of first-rate songs by female artists, balancing standards like Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl” with comparatively lesser-known cuts from Lynne, Jessi Colter, Ma Rainey, and Kate McGarrigle. The result, if not on par with her two exemplary albums, 2000’s The Hardest Part and 2004’s The Duel, is a rebound from 2006’s scattershot Getting Somewhere.
Moorer belongs in any serious conversation about the finest vocalists in modern popular music, and Mockingbird gives her ample opportunities to showcase her interpretive skills and to push herself in new directions. Her randy take on Simone’s song and her gritty, powerhouse delivery of Rainey’s “Daddy, Goodbye Blues” both represent new territory for Moorer, and both styles are ideally suited to her soulful, molasses-thick alto. And, though it’s worth noting that the song itself isn’t quite on the same level as the rest of the set, hearing a vocalist of Moorer’s exceptional warmth tackle the shrill, WASPy drone of Cat Power’s “Where Is My Love” is a perfect example of what a truly great singer can bring to a lackluster song.
Fortunately for Moorer, her ear for quality material is solid. To this point in her career, she’s been an inconsistent songwriter (though this album’s title track is excellent), and the hard-edged Americana of Gillian Welch’s “Revelator,” Julie Miller’s “Orphan Train,” and Lynne’s “She Knows Where She Goes” suggest refined versions of the types of songs Moorer herself has written, so there’s reason to believe her claim that she looked at this project as an opportunity to draw direct inspiration from other songwriters with the hope of sharpening her own skills. That said, when Moorer is on form, she’s a fine songwriter. Perhaps what’s most encouraging about Mockingbird is that it feels deliberately edited: Even its weaker moments, such as a dreamy reading of June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that doesn’t quite work and the badly dated Velvet Underground arrangement on the cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” don’t really detract from the album in any serious way. Whether or not it works as a testament to “the feminine voice” is debatable, but Mockingbird reasserts that Moorer’s is an artistic voice worth hearing.