Oct 072013

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

[A]nybody who hasn’t heard Judee Sill should really do themselves a favor and buy either Judee Sill or the follow-up, which I think is slightly preferable, Heart Food. And both those albums are… well, it’s been said many times before, but she is a female Brian Wilson or he is a male Judee Sill. They’re just stunningly beautiful. It’s J.S. Bach with a 12-string guitar and a ready tune on her lips. She’s really stunning, really stunning. Leagues away from all the other kind of corny bootheels-in-the-dust, denim-flares-California-West-Coast thing of the early ’70s. She just makes them eat cactus, as far as I’m concerned. She’s phenomenally good. – Andy Partridge, XTC

Judee Sill was jailed for robbing liquor stores, forging checks, prostitution, and possession of narcotics. The last would kill her in 1979, shortly after her 35th birthday. She recorded two albums for David Geffen before making a remark in a radio interview that ended her relationship with him, his label, and the music business. She had a prickly personality and the appearance of a severe librarian. And she claimed her biggest influences were “Pythagoras, Bach and Ray Charles.”

Admit it – you want to know more.

Sill was extraordinarily gifted, writing songs suffused with the glory of God in a way that mashed to dust the work of the Laurel Canyon residents of the seventies. But the style that she called “country-cult-baroque” took many years to find its audience, and she didn’t survive to see her work rise from her ashes. Still, the work remains, and has moved others to offer their interpretations of what she brought to the world. Today we remember her, on what would have been her 69th birthday, by presenting a few of these interpretations.

Warren Zevon – Jesus Was A Cross Maker (Judee Sill cover)

Warren Zevon was at a low point when he recorded 1995’s Mutineer, and the uninspired album led his label to drop him; he didn’t release another album for five years. But he did have it in him to record an abbreviated version of “Jesus Was A Cross Maker,” Sill’s best known song (also covered by the Hollies and Mama Cass). It’s a fine recording, and if it brought Sill’s work to people who never would have heard it otherwise, all the better.

Shawn Colvin – There’s A Rugged Road (Judee Sill cover)

“It was streetwise and yet it was religious,” Shawn Colvin said of Sill’s work. Her cover of “There’s a Rugged Road” appeared on 1994’s Cover Girl album, back when Sill’s work was out of print and mostly undiscovered. Kudos to Colvin for getting there early and bringing Sill to an audience that didn’t know how much it needed to know her work.

Ken Stringfellow – Crayon Angels (Judee Sill cover)

Ex-Posie Ken Stringfellow recorded an all-cover EP in 2008 titled The Sellout Cover Session Volume 1. The title couldn’t have been more ironic; Stringfellow’s selections were so little known (heard any Long Winters songs lately? Hummed any Bill Fay?) that he couldn’t have sold out a tool shed based on their fame. Fortunately, he had his talent and the talent of the songwriters, and we’re all grateful for his bringing Sill’s “Crayon Angels” to the, er, masses.

Tara Jane O’Neil – The Phoenix (Judee Sill cover)

Last week we promised one more cover was coming from Tara Jane O’Neil, and here it is. Her cover of “The Phoenix” survives the thousand-mile journey from Laurel Canyon to Portlandia none the worse for wear, perhaps trading in a coat of dust for a coat of dew.

Marissa Nadler – The Kiss (Judee Sill cover)

If Andy Partridge’s praise in that opening paragraph wasn’t effusive enough for you, try this on for size – he called “The Kiss” “the most beautiful song ever recorded.” He may not be wrong – judge for yourself. Marissa Nadler knows better than to try matching Sill’s song; she’s content to add her own trip-hoppy spin, with the assistance of Black Hole Infinity. This recording comes from Crayon Angel: A Tribute To The Music of Judee Sill, with fifteen tracks that at times are almost as revelatory as Sill herself.

Judee Sill’s work can (and should) be picked up at iTunes or Amazon.

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