Other Voices, Other Rooms (Elektra)
Nanci Griffith

By Allen Howie

Nanci Griffith's sometimes fragile voice can be an acquired taste, but her skill as a songwriter is unquestionable. How, then, to greet an album where she puts those delicate vocals at the service of other people's songs? With enthusiasm, as it turns out.

With Other Voices, Other Rooms, it was Griffith's intention to pay tribute to the songwriters and singers who inspired a young Texas girl to pursue a musical career. In particular, the album is a tip of the hat to the folk songs which still traveled the airwaves in the 1960s. Griffith's shrewd song selection and equally canny choice of musical partners combine to make her efforts a rousing success.

Folk music may be pretty, but it's often a grim sort of beauty, lovely melodies woven in and around tales of lost dreams and loneliness. Strangely enough, though, these songs bring out a loose, playful quality in Griffith's singing and her obvious affection for the material shines through.

So consistent are the performances by the singer and her fellow musicians that it's truly difficult to single out the especially noteworthy numbers. If pressed, however, highlights would have to include the late Kate Wolf's effervescent "Across the Great Divide," with harmonies by Emmylou Harris, Griffith's lovely duet with Arlo Guthrie on Townes Van Zandt's tragic "Tecumseh Valley," and a spry version of Frank Christian's "Threeflights Up."

Other standout cuts include a somber reading of John Prine's wonderful "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," with Prine himself on "lonesome harmony vocals," a robust duet with folk legend Carolyn Hester on Tom Paxton's "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," and the gentle high harmonies of Michael Burton's "Night Rider's Lament." Add in songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and a host of others and you've got a sparkling homage to a seldom-heard genre of American music.

The album ends with a grin, as Griffith assembles an all-star cast that includes Odetta, the Indigo Girls, Rose-Kennedy, John Prine, John Gorka and a dozen others for a playful and all-too-brief "Wimoweh." Like the rest of the record, it works not by preserving the song in amber, but by breathing renewed vitality into it. If folk music is a storytelling tradition handed down through the generations, Other Voices, Other Rooms establishes Nanci Griffith as a torchbearer for hers, letting these timeless songs live again in the process.

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