Mollie O'Brien & Rich Moore,
Saints & Sinners
(Remington Road, 2010)

It's been a decade since a CD with Mollie O'Brien's name gracing its cover (Things I Gave Away, Sugar Hill, 2000) elbowed its way into the world and to the listening devices of discerning music geeks. Consequently, Saints & Sinners, recorded in partnership with Rich Moore, was welcome in my house even before I had a chance to hear it. Hearing it, of course, was better, and hearing it a number of times turns out -- no surprise -- to be better yet.

O'Brien and Moore, who love their music but not their egos, endeavor to rouse the spirits of the songs, for which they have nigh unto perfect taste. No choice is a cliche, as I can testify as one who, having heard it all (well, a lot of it anyway), can spot the boring and predictable a mile away. No trace of it here; of the 13 cuts I was familiar with precisely three, and those three -- Charley Jordan's bawdy "Keep It Clean," Dave Van Ronk's caustic "Losers" and Rudy Toombs's good-timey "I'm Shakin'" (covered by Little Willie John and later the Blasters, in both cases long ago) -- are not ones that have had the chance to wear out their respective welcomes.

The songs cross genres, embracing raggy blues, pop, gospel, folkish singer-songwriter material (from Richard Thompson, Jesse Winchester, David Francey, Tom Waits) to Beatles (George Harrison) and a show tune (Rodgers & Hart). It's all good and all of a piece, with O'Brien's warm, never showy, jazz-tinged vocals carrying each tune to its natural destination, be that earth or sky. She is ably supported by Moore's acoustic guitar and harmony singing, plus a splendid acoustic band consisting of stringed instruments (including Mollie's well-known brother Tim's fiddle), horns and keyboards. The recording has the aura of pre-1950 pop without, however, feeling especially retro.

Amazingly, given how many artists fall to the temptation, O'Brien has managed to resist the siren call of singer-songwriterdom and focused her efforts on the fading art of interpretation. Only one song, "New Boots," bears her byline, shared with Moore and co-producer Ben Winship, and it is a very fine one. In that sense O'Brien is like Van Ronk, who wrote only a handful of songs, every one of which is of exceptional quality.

If Saints & Sinner fails to charm you, I can only assume it's because you lack ears or a soul. Possibly both.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 October 2010

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