What does it sound like?:
At the age of 80 (she hit that milestone last May), at a time when some of her contemporaries are losing their voices and their creative wellspring is running dry, Judy Collins has produced a late career gem.
No doubt she would maintain her voice is not what it was, and I’m sure it must have lost some of the power of years long gone, yet it still sounds absolutely gorgeous, full of richness and pitched absolutely beautifully.
This collection is a collaboration, like her last release from a couple of years ago, Everybody Knows. This time, instead of the star billing with Stephen Stills, she is collaborating with the not particularly well known Jonas Fjeld. Chatham County Line also contribute, and I understand Fjeld has been a regular collaborator with them in recent years.
He sings in quite a husky baritone. He doesn’t have the greatest range, but he he contrasts nicely with Judy and they combine together to excellent effect. Let’s face it, Judy proved she can accommodate herself to all sorts, when she pioneered singing acapella along with the songs of humpback whales many years back on Farewell To Tarwathie.
Ostensibly a loose collection of seasonal songs (thankfully not including any cloying Xmas songs), it seems to me to be as much about travelling and making connections as about winter.
Judy first came to my attention, and to many others, with her cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now (effectively introducing Joni to the world). She revisits the Mitchell songbook with a cover of River. It’s a song that it would be very difficult for any half-competent musician to produce a bad version of, but nonetheless Judy produces an absolutely exquisite version. I’d suggest that were this song not so widely covered and had she produced it 40 years ago, this could have become the definitive version of the song.
The album opens with a song titled Northwest Passage. This sounds incredibly familiar to me, but I don’t know where I have heard it before. It’s written by a Canadian folksinger named Stan Rogers and is the song most Canadians have voted for (it says on Wikipedia) as an alternative to their national anthem. It is worthy of that level of popularity, because it’s a great song. It may be one that needs just a single listen because it hooks you in and embeds itself in your brain. Judy does it proud and it also serves to introduce, not just the seasonal aspect of the album, but also the travelling one.
There are a couple of original songs written by Judy, both revived rather than brand new compositions, Mountain Girl and The Fallow Way.
Mountain Girl is a song about returning home, disillusioned with city life:
Big city blues in my soul
Maybe like me that man chose to live here
Where there are days your heart dies
While The Fallow Way is about surviving winter, about the hope for the coming change of season
The fallow time will fall away
The sun will bring an April day
And I will yield to Summer’s way
Both are given sympathetic settings. Mountain Girl benefits from Chatham County Line’s bluegrass performance while The Fallow Way is given a superb violin and piano led accompaniment.
Jimmy Webb’s The Highwayman is a pretty straight cover save for the significant difference of hearing Judy’s voice rather than Messrs Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson and Cash’s voices. While I’ve loved the sound of this song for years, I don’t dwell on the lyrics too much, because the ridiculous final verse undermines the first three. I’d have been really impressed if Judy had felt the same way and ignored that fourth verse (which is about a starship pilot, should you not know it).
There’s one song with a significantly different feel to others, which is Sweet Refrain, where Jonas and Judy swap verses before coming together to sing in unison. It’s got a very simple accompaniment where a rolling jazzy piano figure is accompanied by acoustic bass and rhythm guitar, but it’s a lovely song.
Chatham County Line are unleashed on a pure bluegrass number Bury Me With My Guitar On. It’s their performance except for one verse given to Judy, who also joins in on chorus. I find little bluegrass goes a long way, and this song is quite enough. Anyway, any reservations evaporate immediately as it’s followed by River.
Perhaps my favourite moment on the album comes in the song Angels In The Snow. After a steel guitar led intro, Jonas sing the first verse. I’m assuming it’s in Norwegian. It’s certainly a language I don’t recognise, but it’s the way he finishes the first verse and a beat later Judy’s voice swoops in. There’s no trickery, it’s just a moment of consummate beauty.
The wintry theme concludes the album, with the songs Frozen North and The Blizzard, which is a cover of a John Denver song.
Frozen North is joint composition between Judy and Jonas. It’s a slow piano led song, with a delicately picked banjo meandering along before violin melds in. Jonas leads with Judy accompanying on the choruses and on one verse. It’s an absolutely beautiful song, as you can hear in the clip posted in comments.
The themes of winter and connection are interweaved
The coldest night that winter ever knew
Is warmer than the ice of loneliness
And I have known a winter of the heart
And found the summer of your gentleness
So having given Jonas the lead on the previous song, The Blizzard has Judy singing solo. Again it connects the frozen weather with human connection. Telling of being stranded in a diner
Me and the stranger, you know I don’t talk to strangers
I’m a private sort of person but a blizzard is a blizzard
And somehow I found myself saying you’d left me
Tellin’ her everything I wanted to say to you
You know how it is when you can talk to a stranger
Someone you’re quite sure you’ll never see again
I’m not big on John Denver’s work, but I was astonished by the perception and sensitivity he showed in this song (remembering the irritating twerp who fronted that series back in the 70s). Judy performs a wondrous version. As I noted at the beginning of this piece, Judy is still a fantastic singer and if you might have been in any doubt, this song gives the lie to that.
What does it all *mean*?
I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this album. I didn’t know the name Jonas Fjeld and Chatham County Line have limited appeal. So for the results to be this damn good and for it to be something that can be listened to in any season is a notable achievement.
Goes well with…
A warm room, your significant other and a glass of your favourite tipple.
29th November 2019
Might suit people who like…
Christmas is coming. Who wouldn’t benefit from a first rate Judy Collins album in their stocking?