Music

Various Artists: Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill

John Wesley Williams

A pantheon of indie rockers seeks to revive the reputation of a lost singer-songwriter.


Various Artists

Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill

Label: American Dust
US Release Date: 2009-09-22
UK Release Date: 2009-09-21
Amazon
iTunes

Judee Sill could have been a bona fide star. Her first album was also the first for David Geffen's Asylum label, which launched the careers of Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, and the Eagles. She was a regular on the West Coast scene, and she toured with Graham Nash and David Crosby. Even more important than her associates were her songs, folk-inflected productions that were akin to the Laurel Canyon sound, but something different all the same.

So why is it that, 30 years after Sill's death at age 35, her reputation needs reviving by indie rockers barely older than her recordings?

She was a self-destructive wreck, for one. Her father and brother died when she was young. Those personal tragedies and a disdain for her mother and stepfather led her to a life of small-time crime, prostitution, and drug use. Her last years were a waste. When she died of a drug overdose in 1979, she hadn't released an album for six years. Many of her former friends were surprised she lasted so long.

Even though her talent was largely squandered, Sill's two albums from the early 1970s, Judee Sill and Heart Food, document a considerable songwriting prowess. Dreams Come True, a planned third record that was finally released in 2005, only confirmed her abilities. Those abilities took her off in strange directions -- too strange, apparently, for a mainstream audience to appreciate.

Sill's songs are not folk music so much as hymns in a folk vein. But these are hymns directed at no god in particular. Shot off into the ether, they yearn for transcendence but seem uncertain where it will come from. Sometimes Sill's longing is expressed in the simplest of terms, such as on "Reach for the Sky", a previously unrecorded song that Beth Orton breathes life into here. More often, though, Sill's mode is figurative. 'Angel', 'astral', 'cosmos': these are words that appear frequently in her work. She is always reaching for the heights that such words suggest. How jarring that her exterior life was lived in the opposite depths.

Though Sill's lyrics were ambitious, the production on her Asylum albums tended toward the middle-of-the-road. With the exception of a song like "The Donor", which used reverb and multilayered vocals to achieve the effect of chant, their slick strings and canned percussion now sound severely dated. But Sill knew how to write a hook, and the hooks are most immediate when the songs are heard without ornate studio effects. Rerecording them with a new set of production values was a pretty good idea.

The most successful tracks on this set are those that keep things simple -- faithful renditions stripped of the gloss. Ron Sexsmith's quiet but powerful version of "Crayon Angels", for instance, distills the song down to its essence. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Sexsmith sings a quintessential Sill line: "Nothing's happened but I think it will soon / So I sit here waiting for God and a train / To the astral plane". On paper, such a lyric sounds a bit cute, but the beauty of Sill’s version -- and Sexsmith's, too -- is how it renders the thought genuinely touching.

Other strong entries include "There's a Rugged Road", an upbeat country number performed by the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and Frida Hyvönen's dynamic take on "Jesus Was a Cross Maker", probably Sill's best-known song. Both succeed in large part because the vocals are belted with such vigor. A fault of many tracks on the album is that they fail to approximate the power of Sill's singing; it's as if the artists felt bound to deliver a quiet vocal performance in order to show reverence. That is hardly a proper tribute to Sill's style. She could lift her earthy voice into a higher register, but she rarely muted it.

Several of the songs on the album take an experimental leap and totally transform Sill's original arrangements. Final Fantasy pares the dense reverb of "The Donor" and leaves a skeletal piano line. Colossal Yes imbues "The Phoenix" with a military drumbeat to give the update a heavier feel than the original. And with "The Kiss", Marissa Nadler contributes one of the album's most inventive renditions, replacing the song’s strings and piano with synths and drum machine to create glacially-paced electronica.

Inevitably, some tracks will attract attention for their performers. Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear does a version of "Waterfall" that sounds like, well, Grizzly Bear. Bill Callahan’s entry, the previously unrecorded "For a Rainbow", meanders on for a disappointing eight minutes.

Despite the album's mixed results, these performers are to be applauded for their effort to bring Sill to wider attention. She deserves to be better remembered.

6

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image