Pitchfork JANUARY 8, 2009 - by Stephen M. Deusner


She may not sell as well or enjoy their prominent rock status, but I'd bet there's more concentrated excitement over a new Marianne Faithfull album than any new Rolling Stones release could inspire in even their hardiest fan. There are certainly fewer dashed expectations. Unlike the group that ostensibly "discovered" her (those quote marks should be in 72-point font), Faithfull has carved a niche as a gifted and idiosyncratic interpreter embedded in the present but engaged with the past. In lesser hands, her grainy voice - impossibly dark and knowing - might sound gothically cheesy, but she gives herself over to her songs completely while remaining indelibly, recognisably herself. She's the Helen Mirren of rock'n'roll: a dish in the 1960s who has not only aged incredibly well, but wears her age with as much grace as others wear their youth.

Like her 1987 album Strange Weather, which cemented that reputation, Easy Come, Easy Go is a covers album produced by Hal Willner, and a few of the song titles here might suggest something akin to one of those dreadful boomer standards albums or a pathetic attempt by an older artist to connect with the kids. (A U.S. version will be out in March on Decca Records.) But Faithfull is classier than Rod Stewart or Pat Boone, not just because her voice is more appealing, but primarily because she knows to dig deep into an artist's catalog for inspiration. Everything is a standard, if to no one else but herself. So nothing here, not even the Duke Ellington song, sounds like an obvious choice, nor is anything handled predictably. Bessie Smith's Easy Come, Easy Go becomes a slow-burn vaudeville, layering clarinets over... well, I don't know what it is, but sounds like either a fuzzed-out bassoon or a fuzzed-out bass piano. The effect is uncanny: an eerie approximation of the past that sounds both real and unreal.

There is no guiding conceit to Easy Come, Easy Go, no criteria that connects all of Faithfull's sources, which frees her up considerably to find the hidden passages between these disparate songs. Smith and Ellington sit alongside The Decemberists, Neko Case, and Espers, but Faithfull isn't pandering to bloggers and Willner doesn't play Rick Rubin to her Johnny Cash by having her reinterpret modern-rock tunes into novelty. Rather, there are dark themes running through these songs, which evoke different facets of loss and self-destruction. Opening the record, Dolly Parton's Down from Dover devastates as it recounts a woman's unwanted pregnancy and self-delusion that the father will return. Parton made the narrator's innocence sound immediate, but Faithfull removes herself somewhat from the predicament, her rasp suggesting the passage of time and a life that has gotten no easier. As she sings it, Down From Dover sounds like a spiritual twin to The Decemberists' The Crane Wife 3, which unthreads some of the same maternal and spousal conflicts and makes the simple melody sound like a descending brushstroke on a clean canvas.

Brian Eno's How Many Worlds still sounds slight and indifferent, but Randy Newman's In Germany Before The War could have been written specifically for Faithfull - or at least by Weill. She can't evoke the unbearable sense of loss that the original communicates so easily, but she does conjure her own particularly mournful ambience, as if playing every part (the first-person narrator, the little lost girl) herself. Espers' Children of Stone is filled with majestic dread that never dissipates over its eight minutes. Her backing band - including backing vocalist Chan Marshall - oversell Case's Hold On Hold On, but Faithfull gets the dark self-reckoning just right.

In Europe, Naïve is releasing a special edition that includes eight bonus tracks that broaden the scope of the project, if not the depth. Her version of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Salvation tries too hard to replicate the dense sound of the original, which ultimately sounds a bit detached from her vocals. Faithfull sounds more comfortable with the older tracks, savouring the lilting melodies of Judee Sill's The Phoenix and the traditional The Flandyke Shore, made popular by Nic Jones. She retains the pomp and drama of Morrissey's Dear God Please Help Me, but her duet with Jarvis Cocker on Somewhere is sadly underwhelming: Their voices contrast nicely - hers bold and warm, his whispery and conspiratorial - but the song suits neither of them particularly well.

Faithfull fares better with Antony on Smokey Robinson's Ooh Baby Baby, which stands out from the album proper thanks to its convoluted, shifting arrangement. The song opens with piano glissandos and nightclub vocals before transforming into a girl-group lite-funk vamp. They trade off lead duties, but Faithfull sounds best when she's interjecting "stronger stronger" like she's The Antonettes. Throughout its eight minutes, the song stands halfway between the lounge and the dancefloor. It's overlong, extremely gaudy, completely ridiculous, and just wonderful. The song altogether disrupts the album's sombreness and glues sequins all over the original, and to her credit, Faithfull attacks it with more spirit than singers half her age could muster. Except maybe Antony.