Records like Nancy Sinatra, which take a pop icon, surround her with current admirers for collaborators, and hope for a sound both modern and classic, are quite often disasters and almost never live up to even the most grudging of high hopes. Well, thanks to this (and Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose), you can toss that theory out the window, because Nancy Sinatra is a resounding success. Sinatra was never a great singer; she got by on her boots, Lee Hazlewood's songs, and Frank. Believe it or not, her vocals are one of the strong points here. With age her voice seems to have gained some gravitas and strength. She also rarely relies on her trademark arch line deliveries, instead diving into the songs with passion and real feeling. Passion is a strange word to see in association with Nancy (unless preceded by "lack of"), but she sounds invested in the songs her younger collaborators have delivered. Most of them gave her songs that fit her age and abilities, often casting her in the role of world-weary advisor or heartbroken crooner. The collaborations on this record can be grouped into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good would include "Bossman," a track written by Phil Burns and Andy Holt of electronic band Reno and the album's co-producers, A.J. and Matt Azzarto, that sounds like a modern update (complete with subtly altered vocals) of a classic Lee Hazlewood epic. Other highlights include Calexico's moody cowboy ballad "Burning Down the Spark," the funky "Ain't No Easy Way" with Jon Spencer in the mumbling Hazlewood role, Pete Yorn's rollicking "Don't Mean Nothing," and her neighbor Morrissey's "Let Me Kiss You," which finds Nancy perfectly replicating his phrasing, and if it is a minor composition at least it has a good hook. And Bono and the Edge's "Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad" is a late-night barroom ballad that brings up memories of Frank -- and for once, Nancy sounds like his kid as she pulls it off magnificently.
The bad isn't really too bad -- just kind of predictable. Little Steven's "Baby Please Don't Go" is a generic '60s-style rocker that Nancy delivers in a Ronnie Spector croon and almost pulls out of the fire. "About a Fire," by her bandmembers Tom Lilly and Lanny Cordola, is a bland and slick alterna-tune, the kind of over-produced, underwritten material one might expect on a record like this. Luckily, it is the only song to fall into that trap. The ugly belongs solely to Thurston Moore's "Momma's Boy," a tuneless dirge with boringly trite lyrics and thuddingly obvious Sonic Youth-lite guitar work. He seems to be going for a re-creation of classic Lee Hazlewood mystical and faintly evil songs like "Sand" or "Some Velvet Morning," but he misses the mark, his failure is complete, and it leaves a big hole in the middle of the record. On the flip side are Jarvis Cocker's two amazing contributions; "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time" recalls Spector productions with suitably tough and sly lyrics, while "Baby's Coming Back to Me" glides on an atmospheric country & western bed of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and strings that perfectly mirrors the melancholy vocals. Here and elsewhere, Nancy sounds like the voice of experience, bittersweet and knowing. It's lucky for Nancy as well as for listeners that so many of the people she chose to work with gave her songs that capture her newfound skills. Her work with Lee Hazlewood has to remain her legacy, but this record is a surprisingly strong addition. She won't get the same press that Loretta Lynn got for her "comeback," but this may even be more impressive an accomplishment because it came out of nowhere.