It's usually not a good sign when an artist rerecords his best material. Generally it's either a blatant cash-in or an indication of creative infertility. But with John Prine's Souvenirs, a collection of 15 classics done anew, neither is the case.
Yes, it's been five years since we heard an album's worth of new material from Prine. Last year's In Spite of Ourselves was stuffed full of covers (save the title song, the lone Prine composition). Yet its exploration of love in a series of duets was something of an artistic triumph for Prine, who previously had been seen more as a songwriter than a singer.
Likewise, Souvenirs is a winner on the strength of Prine's singing alone, at least if one is attuned to the nuance and expressiveness he wrings from his crushed-gravel voice. In his brief liner notes, the songwriter explains how the songs "have been faithful companions over the years," and it shows. He strides confidently and comfortably over familiar ground: "Angel from Montgomery," "Donald and Lydia," "Sam Stone" and "Hello in There," to name a few of the best-known numbers from Prine's early career. The subdued folk-rock arrangements may not add anything new -- the original version of "Fish and Whistle," in fact, far better reflected the song's idiosyncrasies -- yet they frame Prine's singing and acoustic guitar playing in a way that makes a strong pronouncement: Here's a singer at one with his material, and his delivery.
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Simply because he's looking back at his own past, Souvenirs becomes a concise gestalt of John Prine's sound today. Sure, it's a chance for him to sell these songs again, now on his own label. But the way he sells them, with such organic grace, makes it all well worth the price of admission.