January 2, 2007

ARE THERE REALLY GUILEFUL HYMNS?:

A Brief Life, an Enduring Musical Impression: Rhino Reissue Sings the Praises of Judee Sill (Tim Page, 12/30/06, Washington Post)

On the day after Thanksgiving 1979, Judee Sill, a 35-year-old, deeply depressed and physically broken singer-songwriter, took an overdose of opiates and cocaine in her North Hollywood apartment. The Los Angeles coroner ruled Sill's death a suicide, but those who knew her better have always contended that the "note" found near her body -- a meditation on rapture, the hereafter and the innate mystery of life -- may just have been part of a diary entry or, perhaps, another one of her haunted, haunting songs beginning to take shape. [...]

And yet, as a new two-CD reissue from Rhino Records U.K., titled "Abracadabra: The Asylum Years," makes clear, she was also an artist of extraordinary gifts, one whose best songs are suffused with a radiant, prayerful and excruciatingly tender innocence, all the more affecting because it must have been so hard-won. (Children -- some children, anyway -- come by this naturally; adults, especially those with histories such as Sill's, have to fight for it every day.)

The immediate temptation is to classify her with some of her more famous contemporaries -- Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Carole King -- and, indeed, the similarities are there. Yet Sill's body of work is both more limited and more perfect. Virtually all of her songs are intensely devotional; along with J.S. Bach and Mahalia Jackson (two of her acknowledged influences), Sill believed that the purpose of music was the glorification of God. Instead of sharply etched social vignettes or cosmopolitan evocations of modern life and love, she wrote her own sort of hymns -- guileless, urgent, naked, absolutely personal.

Her following, while still small, is a distinguished one, including Andy Partridge from XTC and Liz Phair; the late Warren Zevon was also a fan. The American singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin included Sill's "There's a Rugged Road" on her album "Cover Girl." Sill's music "didn't sound like anybody else," she told the London Guardian. "It was streetwise and yet it was religious."

Sill's lyrics might be described as high hippie Christian, cries of "Kyrie eleison!" melding with references to angels and astral planes. Her words are very much of their time and place -- and yet, even at their weakest, they more than suffice to decorate her unpredictable and irresistible compositions, which are nowhere near so easy to pigeonhole. According to Michele Kort, the author of Rhino's excellent liner notes, Sill insisted she wrote "country-cult-baroque -- country for the pedal-steel guitar, clip-clop Western beats and the twang in her voice; cult for the esoteric nature of her concerns and her small-but-fervent audience; and baroque for the Bach-like melodies she favored."

But there is sun-splashed, deliciously over-marinated California pop here, too. Brian Wilson would have been proud to have written "The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown" (and the arrangement is so slick and pitch-perfect that he might have served as its producer). "Ridge Rider" proves a heretofore undreamed-of hybrid of Heitor Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasilieras" and cowboy music. "The Archetypal Man" swerves from straightforward balladry to jazz-baroque scat singing right out of the Swingle Singers. And "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos" is an anomaly -- a popular song that actually earns the full orchestra that accompanies it. Yet it never seems overdressed: to the contrary, this is one of the most spare and evocative love songs ever written, addressing aging, rootlessless, exhaustion, need, loss and resignation in a few lines that must have been cut from the heart.

"Many artists refer to hard living in their work, but few had the experiences Judee Sill had as a child and beyond," says Sean O'Hagan, the leader of the British band the High Llamas. "Family breakdown, petty crime, penal service, drugs -- and yet she overcame it all to write as she had always wanted to."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2007 12:42 PM
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