Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Lie in His Voice

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Leonard Cohen). Songwriters and composers didn't used to invariably sing their own tunes, at least not for the official record. Blame the change on the Beatles and/or Dylan if you will; I'm not hoping to turn back the clock, but I do wonder if some of the great singer/songwriters of the past 50 years or so would have fared better with the "singer" duties handled by others. As much as I count Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits as indispensable vocal stylists, for instance, and as much as I cherish their original versions of their songs, their voices are acquired tastes that most people don't bother to acquire (and it's hard to blame them).

Though his voice isn't as glaringly flawed or as abrasive as the aforementioned, I'd count the tall, gnomic Leonard Cohen in their company. In fact, there are only a handful of his songs I prefer in his original renditions; too often the feeling I get from his vocal performances is a total lack of interest, and the production on most of his records sounds similarly stale (I tried to love Various Positions, I really did). That's why I'm glad this sleek, gleamingly somber record from 1987 was my introduction to his work (thanks to an L.A. Times piece by Chris Willman). Revisiting it now--well into the permanent resurgence of Cohen's career, well after the ubiquitous Cale/Buckley "Hallelujah" and the endless tribute covers by every disheveled, sensitive hipster alive--I'm even more grateful, because what Warnes and producer Roscoe Beck do here is put Cohen's lovely, old-fashioned, but unstintingly unsentimental songcraft in a jewel case and shine a piercing, velvety light on it. Apart from a misjudged light-rock cover of "Bird on a Wire," every song here, even the uptempo ones, seems to have welled up from some deep inner sob into a perfect, lapidary shape.

And with her warm blade of a mezzo-soprano, Warnes honors the songs' melancholy and mystery and resignation without evoking, as Cohen's voice too often does, one of those bearded mountaintop gurus in a New Yorker cartoon. The marriage of songs and interpreter has seldom been as mutually rewarding.

Chris Willman Thanks for the link so I could re-read my little piece on this album for the first time in 26 years. I can't believe that the one time I interviewed Leonard Cohen, I ended up using one quote from him! I'm hoping that was the editors' fault and not mine... I was just thinking recently that I need to give this album a spin.
Chris Willman But do you really think Costello's voice is more flawed and abrasive than Cohen's? Elvis has my favorite rock voice, other than McCartney's--though sometimes I try to remember that it strikes novices the wrong way. Leonard's, on the other hand... I think of that as a higher barrier for entry. I know what you mean about not being able to read his level of emotional investment, though I learned to like that as, I guess, deadpan, given how funny a lot of his lyrics are. But that's my perpetual complaint about Willie Nelson.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Chris, you turned me on to more music than you know (when I spin BRING THE FAMILY again, I will have to cite you there, too). I love Costello's voice, too, but it can be abrasive; when a friend of mine observed that EC sounded like he had a cold, I couldn't listen to him for a while, because stuffed-up nose is all I could hear. I still find Leonard's deadpan off-putting, but Willie? At his best, in the RED HEADED STRANGER days, I have no problem reading him--and I guess I'm also less bothered by the laconic-cowboy 'tude when it's cowboy music.
David Tobocman This was mine intro to Leonard Cohen as well. I only recently got into the man himself and I find his first album to be a stunner. As far as production and arrangements, New Skin for the Old Ceremony is easy to love. Jennifer Warnes handles the duties well here. Great songs, recommended.
David Tobocman Let me add that Cohen's maleness is so important to his bag that nothing here rises to the level of an essential version, but her Manhattan is great and is my preferred listen.
Anne Elsberry Well, maybe, but I think Famous Blue Raincoat and Chelsea Hotel need Leonard's voice.

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