Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Two Judee Sill Reissues


There’s no question that Judee Sill’s back story is fascinating and disturbing. The biological daughter of a man who imported exotic animals for films, she emerged from a violent home life with a step dad who animated Tom and Jerry cartoons to become an armed robber, drug addict, prostitute, scam artist, and convict. Then she apparently discovered Jesus and became a recording artist.

While her lyrics take the occasional glimpse into the shadows (most fearlessly on “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown”), Sill’s first recordings fail to reflect her harrowing experiences. Her voice is full bodied and pitch perfect, but it does not exactly exude emotion, making her sound like she should be serenading kids on The Magic Garden and leaving folky compositions such as “Crayon Angels” and “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” pleasant but not terribly moving. The religiousness of her lyrics won’t appeal to everyone either. Without a doubt the most striking song on Judee Sill is the heart-rending “Lady-O”, which The Turtles recorded with more acute emotion in 1969. These songs all appear on Sill’s 1971 self-titled debut co-produced by Graham Nash. The inoffensive acoustic arrangements are in line with Nash’s work with CSN’s softer songs. The Paul Buckmaster-esque string arrangement on “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” is the one unquestionably potent ingredient in an otherwise bland stew.

On her second album, 1973’s Heart Food, Sill taps into her experiences more effectively with country-ish arrangements that place her work in that genre’s tradition of hard living. More of the grand string arrangements that were the highlights of Judee Sill prevent the Heart Food  from ever feeling like mere rural pastiche. Most importantly, Sill lets down her guard in front of the mic. The inherent quality of her voice is still very present, but by allowing it to droop into audible despair, to soar with intensity, to bend and even crack, she bridges the emotional gap that made her debut feel distant. The most explicitly religious thing here is an epic called The Donor yet it is so breath-taking that even we heathens can dig it. There’s nothing as recognizable as “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” or “Lady-O” on Heart Food, but it is most definitely the superior album.

Intervention Records is now giving the only two records Judee Sill completed before her death in 1979 deluxe treatment with a new audiophile reissue that splits each album between two 180 gram, 45-rpm records. True to advertising, the vinyl is whisper quiet and the all-analog masters are exceptionally present and detailed. Some of the music is merely pretty but the presentation is consistently beautiful.
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