Monday, August 19, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1293: Jennifer Warnes

Walking home today I felt an easy contentment come over me. People I knew recognized me from their cars, waving and honking enthusiastically. Random, not entirely sober dudes mistook the honking for them and took it all well when they realized their mistake. The world just seemed at peace with itself. And the whole journey home I was in the company of a very old friend – this next album.

Disc 1293 is… Famous Blue Raincoat
Artist: Jennifer Warnes

Year of Release: 1986

What’s up with the Cover? The titular blue raincoat. This one is pretty wrinkled, like it’s just come out of summer storage. Below the raincoat it looks like someone has emptied out an ashtray on the bedspread, which is rather rude.

How I Came to Know It: I was a fan of Leonard Cohen and this record was a pretty popular collection of his songs back when I was attending university. It ended up being one of my first CDs and I still own it today.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only Jennifer Warnes album I have, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

I’ve always been one of those people who likes the sound of Leonard Cohen’s voice. I like the voices of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson as well. I have no issue with gravelly old guys singing as long as the songs are good. So when I heard about “Famous Blue Raincoat” back in 1988 my first thought was, “why would anyone do an album full of Leonard Cohen covers? Aren’t his original versions awesome enough?” They are, but Jennifer Warnes’ extended love letter to his work won me over with its grace and beauty.

At the time I was decidedly anti-cover, and only wanted to hear the original artist singing their songs. This all seems a bit silly now, the more so considering how much I was into Celtic folk music at the time. Almost every album in that genre has at least one traditional tune on it that’s been sung by dozens of people over the years. Somehow the incongruity of my position on covering a ten year old song and covering a 300 year old song never occurred to me.

Jennifer Warnes helped disavow me of such folly. As a song on the record notes, their ain’t no cure for love. There is, however, a cure for narrow-mindedness, and hearing her sing Cohen’s songs on “Famous Blue Raincoat” was a big part of that journey for me. Warnes’ voice is rich and pure and she belts it out with a simple confidence, devoid of a bunch of runs and vocal gymnastics that a lesser performer might resort to.

She doesn’t need this sort of cheap trick, because she gets these songs, understanding their bones like she wrote them herself. This depth of understanding helps her honour the brilliance of Cohen’s poetic soul, while still infusing them with her own unique artistry.

There are even songs where – to my shock – I found myself preferring her cover to the original. On “First We Take Manhattan” smooth jazz elements actually help create the feeling of a dystopian future the lyrics intend.  Joan of Arc” benefits immeasurably by being a duet between Joan and the fire that consumes her (Cohen provides guest vocals to sing the part of Fire, in what is one of his better vocal performances).

While I didn’t prefer “Ain’t No Cure for Love” and “Coming Back to You” over Cohen’s versions, I did like the way Warnes infused a thread of optimism and playfulness into songs that have a more somber approach coming off Cohen’s tongue.

My one gripe with the record is that its production and arrangements are so typical of their time. 1986 was not a kind year, and the excess use of saxophone solos was rampant. It works on “First We Take Manhattan” but in other places it sometimes had me feeling like I was in the middle of an episode of Moonlighting. One of those moments where Maddie and David have had a fight and are now rolling around in their beds in the moonlight, pining for one another.

This sax assault is particularly egregious on “Bird on a Wire.” This song works best as a song of quiet regret and doesn’t deserve some bizarre noodle-fest evoking a “life in the city is tough” vibe.

Fortunately, those moments are generally eclipsed by Warnes’ brilliant vocal performance and her clear connection to the songs. Her versions don’t outshine Cohen’s, and she doesn’t get lost in their shadow either. She comfortably and confidently stands alongside them; different but equal. In the process she helps show young idiots like me that great art has many facets, and there are benefits from seeing those facets from a fresh angle.

Best tracks: Famous Blue Raincoat, Joan of Arc, Ain’t No Cure for Love

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