When In Spite of Ourselves was first released in 1999, it was pretty noteworthy, serving as John Prine’s first album since beating neck cancer. His voice is raspy and worn, if not a little battered by his battle and surgery, and so he’s paired himself with nine different female singers. And these duets hearken back to the era from which Prine has drawn all but the title track. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, duets were a matter of course — George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, to name but a few.
The duet partners Prine chose have distinctive voices, and your enjoyment of In Spite of Ourselves pretty much hinges on your appreciation of the other singers. Most folks like Emmylou Harris or Trisha Yearwood, but Iris Dement and Lucinda Williams are very much of a specific sort, and might be a bit of an acquired taste for some. The same can be said for Prine, who’s a little flat, but as a contemporaneous review in No Depression said back in ‘99, “if nothing else, it proves that Prine has great taste in old country songs.”
The songs when Prine steps back and lets his ladies take the lead — Trisha Yearwood on the Roger Miller gem “When Two Worlds Collide,” for example — work the absolute best. Teaming up with the worn but powerful voice of Melba Montgomery, who actually did duets with George Jones back in the day, might be the most striking.
Tying everything together with an actual participant in the thing Prine’s attempting to reproduce is one thing, and it works well. What’s best about Prine’s pairing with Montgomery is that there are now two frail and damaged voices, and their fault both compliment and contrast one another, and it really does a fine job of highlighting the fact that these sorts of duets can be more than novelty.
The title track is the highlight, and came as a bit of a surprise, as I’d long considered this to be some kind of ‘60s counter-culture thing that had become an underground standard. I was surprised to discover Prine’s song isn’t even 20 years old yet, but much like, say, “Wagon Wheel,” it’s a modern song which manages to make itself seem timeless from the moment you first hear it.
The vinyl’s absolutely heavy-duty, and sounds pretty good. The production on In Spite of Ourselves is odd, as it’s going for this simple aesthetic, but it ends of sounding weak on a few tracks. The more complicated the song, the more apparent it is, but the simpler the song, the better it works. “We’re Not the Jet Set” and “In Spite of Ourselves,” as well as “Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back the Years” work best, because they really hearken back to the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The gatefold looks gorgeous, and the vintage photos tie right into the classic songs on which Prine and his collaborators duet. Producer Jim Rooney offers up a short essay on his history listening to these songs, and Prine has a paragraph on the appeal of duets and his partners. The printed inner sleeve has lyrics for all the songs, as well as a rundown of everyone who performed on In Spite of Ourselves.
The record comes with a download code, as well as the printed inner sleeve with lyrics.
In Spite of Ourselves is available on limited edition red vinyl directly from John Prine.