John Prine, “For Better, or Worse” (Oh Boy)
Listening to one of this era’s greatest songwriters perform material written by others is like watching Peyton Manning in a TV commercial. It’s not what he does best, but it’s still entertaining.
“For Better, or Worse” pairs John Prine with well-chosen covers and female singing partners as a sequel to his 1999 duets album, “In Spite of Ourselves.” The best news is that Prine is in fine form despite his battle with throat cancer, and the familiar twinkle in his voice lends charm to every tune.
The set starts strong with Prine and Iris DeMent savoring the wit of “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out,” a Loretta Lynn-Ernest Tubbs chestnut. Prine and his wife, Fiona, sound sweet together on the Elvis Presley tune “My Happiness,” and Alison Krauss comes off like an angel while meshing surprisingly well with her gravelly partner on “Falling in Love Again.” Best is the finale, “Just Waitin,'” an obscure Hank Williams gem that Prine performs solo with a masterful delivery. The lyrics will resonate with every impatient husband, which is to say every husband.
Other tunes are less successful. With Kathy Mattea on “Remember Me,” Prine shows he should not sing harmony, and Miranda Lambert’s unusual harmony on “Cold, Cold Heart” doesn’t quite work.
The liner notes include a charming message from Prine but lack details about the songs that are worth a mention. “Falling in Love Again,” for example, was written in German in 1930 and performed by the Beatles in their club days in Hamburg. Even the most precocious songwriter finds a good cover tough to resist.