There is little any recording artist can do that tempts hubris as fatally as the covers album. The balance between paying homage and seizing possession is a difficult one to judge. When one errs too much towards the former, the result can be a timid exercise in curatorship (Teddy Thompson's country covers album, Up Front & Down Low, is a case in point here). Veer too far towards the latter, on the other hand, and you have a recipe for a train wreck — if, occasionally, a morbidly compelling one, as evinced by the efforts of Duran Duran and Def Leppard, among others.
In restricting herself to the works of other female singer-songwriters, Allison Moorer lessens the chances of perpetrating an equivalent of, say, Duran Duran's "911 Is a Joke," but still steps into some dauntingly big boots — June Carter Cash, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, Nina Simone and Patti Smith, among others. She fails, however, to put a foot wrong. It shouldn't surprise anybody that Moorer can sing, but what Mockingbird highlights is her extraordinary versatility — husky torch balladeer on Kate McGarrigle's "Go, Leave," paint-stripping rock belter on Smith's "Dancing Barefoot," plaintive folk chanteuse on Cat Power's "Where Is My Love?"
It helps, of course, that Moorer is able to draw on such a formidable cast of collaborators. Her sister, Shelby Lynne, contributes one new song ("She Knows Where She Goes"). Her husband, Steve Earle, lends guitar to a terrific version of Ma Rainey's "Daddy, Goodbye Blues." Nashville stalwart Buddy Miller produces, helping to conjure arrangements always sympathetic, and occasionally audacious (on the Rainey tune, Moorer's usually pristine delivery is swaddled in static, evoking the pre-war radio on which Rainey would have been heard).
Mockingbird is an affectionate, impassioned triumph — about which one of the more remarkable things is that the title track, written by Moorer herself, emerges — against self-evidently stiff competition — as one of the best things on it.