On Standard Songs for Average People, John Prine and Mac Wiseman sound half-scared of the violence and heartbreak that breathes through the motley collection of tunes they've chosen to cover. Far from an exercise in nostalgia, Standard Songs communicates joy, existential dread, and something like wisdom. The contrast between Prine's faltering, funny croak and Wiseman's assured phrasing is satisfying, and the production combines Tim O'Brien's guitar and Jack Clement's dobro with the post-countrypolitan schlock of the Grand Ole Opry's Carol Lee Singers.
In their hands, Tom T. Hall's "Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine" reveals itself as a classically conflicted New South narrative, complete with a plane ride to Atlanta, while Kris Kristofferson's "Just the Other Side of Nowhere" finds Wiseman declaring, "I've seen about enough/To know where I belong." At 81, Wiseman sings masterfully, as if he's a jazz vocalist who decided to tackle a bit of drollery like Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama" just to prove it could be done. Wiseman's voice is both weightless and ironic, so that Donald Wayne and Bill Anderson's "Saginaw, Michigan" comes across as more complex than the songwriters might have intended.
If Standard Songs has an antecedent, it's Jack Clement's 2004 Guess Things Happen That Way, on which the great Nashville producer and eccentric covered the likes of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations," and sounded almost as wily as Prine and Wiseman. In fact, Standard suggests that Mick Jagger almost got it right forty years ago: It's the singers, not the song.
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