Some of rock & roll’s most affectionate nods to America’s treasury of pop standards haven’t been made by Americans. Elvis Costello has covered Rodgers and Hart, Sting has paid homage to Gershwin, and in the early Eighties, Bono used to slip Stephen Sondheim lyrics into U2 songs in performance. In 1990, Sinéad O’Connor was among a host of artists who recorded versions of Cole Porter classics for Red Hot + Blue. O’Connor was one of a few musicians who opted for an old-fashioned approach, using a big-band arrangement for her reading of Porter’s “You Do Something to Me.” The singer has now parlayed that experiment into Am I Not Your Girl?, a collection of traditional renderings of time-honored favorites.
The album does not lack for problems. O’Connor’s performance on Red Hot + Blue, all whispers and sighs, tried too hard for demure understatement. On Girl, too, she flirts relentlessly with the melodies but is loath to caress them. Her coyness grows cloying after a while; moreover, it suggests that the singer is substituting affectation for technique. True, some of the most inspired takes on songs like these have been by singers of limited technical skill, but O’Connor is no Lotte Lenya or Marianne Faithfull. An interesting and often moving singer, she has yet to display the emotional authority required of a great chanteuse. Her labored breathing and chary phrasing on the swinging “Secret Love” (from Calamity Jane) and Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (from Pal Joey) convey more self-consciousness than ingenuity, making the lush perfection of the forty-plus-piece orchestra seem jarringly incongruous.
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Only when O’Connor drops her mannered delicateness and invokes the urgency that has distinguished her best work does she seem to connect with the material. Her rendition of the haunting “Gloomy Sunday” won’t make anyone forget Billie Holiday’s definitive version, but O’Connor’s delivery has a ghostly, chilling pathos. And on J. McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” she chides her Mr. Wrong with attitude and verve.
But the most compelling performance on this album comes, oddly enough, on the least compelling song. At first the inclusion of British schmaltz meister Andrew Lloyd Webber’s syrupy “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (from Evita) seems regrettable. But hearing a young woman who has courted as much controversy as O’Connor sing lyrics like “I still need your love after all that I’ve done,” you realize why she was drawn to this song and why her straightforward interpretation is so touching. Still, neither this track nor any other on Am I Not Your Girl? reveals O’Connor as a singer whose wit can rival her grit.