Diana Krall insists that this survey of tunes mostly from the 1920s and early ’30s isn’t a period piece, positing, “We all just went in there as if these songs were written yesterday.” If so, somebody forgot to tell the rest of “we all,” because the players surrounding her-among them producer and guitarist T Bone Burnett, Marc Ribot (guitars, bass, banjo) and a curious cat named Howard Coward (actually a pseudonym long-ago adopted by Krall’s husband, Elvis Costello)-seem to be enjoying a spirited ride through Nostalgiaville. Nor does Krall, tinkling a Steinway upright from the 1890s, entirely escape the sepia tones, particularly when adopting a winningly honky-tonk style.
Though her voice seems to have grown a shade more tenuous since 2009’s Quiet Nights, she remains one of the most compelling balladeers around. Indeed, her slightly heightened fragility only adds to the tranquil beauty of “Prairie Lullaby,” the redemptive ache of “Let It Rain,” the hollowness of Doc Pomus’ brilliantly atmospheric “Lonely Avenue” (one of two tracks of more recent vintage) and the road-weariness of “Wide River to Cross” (also newer). And Krall is masterful in her interpretations of the delicately contemplative title track (explored solely with Ribot, who is equally transfixing) and the melodramatic playlet “Here Lies Love,” with its marvelous faux-dirge propulsion.
Vocally, however, the more upbeat selections are a letdown. Across the playful likes of “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears” and “I’m a Little Mixed Up,” it seems as if Krall’s bandmates are swilling bathtub gin while she’s sipping afternoon tea. Where such tunes need to be sung with a sly wink, Krall merely flutters.