"I sit in my chair, and filled with despair, there's no one could be so sad," she sings in a funereal reading of the Duke Ellington-Eddie DeLange-Irvine Mills lament "Solitude" that was a standard for Faithfull's predecessor in such existentially aching music, Billie Holiday. Willner creates an otherworldly setting blending sighing wah-wah guitar with sweetly sad clarinets, a gently plucked upright bass providing the only hint that there's a pulse still beating below the devastated surface.
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The album is subtitled "12 Songs for Music Lovers," and they stretch across much of the 20th century, from the bordello blues of Bessie Smith's title tune (with its spectacular arrangement of piano, clarinet, trumpet and bass sax) forward to Neko Case's "Hold On, Hold On" and "Dear God Please Help Me" from another of her music soul mates, Morrissey. Rufus Wainwright turns up to help out with Espers' "Children of Stone," while Antony Hegarty is Faithfull's partner for what has to be the most melancholy version ever of Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby."
This set is intriguingly bookended with songs from two of country music's greatest songwriters, opening with Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover," a tale of romantic betrayal, and ending with Merle Haggard's death-row classic "Sing Me Back Home." Keith Richards joins in on the latter, an appropriate guest spot for the woman whose gloriously ragged voice sounds like the battle-scarred Stones guitarist looks.
It's the perfect final note on which to end an album built on the premise that music can transcend what would seem to be the most insurmountable of life's travails.
"Easy Come, Easy Go"