Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
For the follow-up to her album of duets with Tony Bennett in 2002, k.d. lang released another collection of cover songs, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel (2004), which consists of mellow, mostly drum-free tributes to her favorite Canadian songwriters. The album title refers to the border between the U.S. and lang’s home country of Canada. She clearly prefers certain artists, as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen & Jane Siberry are each covered twice, with the other three tracks shining a spotlight on Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith and, in a strange twist, herself (she re-recorded her song “Simple,” from 2000’s Invincible Summer LP; it’s a nice version of a beautiful tune but I don’t see the benefit of reprising a song that was already a highlight of such a recent album).
I bought Hymns Of The 49th Parallel shortly after its release and really enjoyed its subtle charms, although I was only familiar with a handful of the songs at the time (both tracks by Neil Young and one each from Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen). Ironically, I’ve already revisited the complete catalogs of two of these artists (Young & Mitchell) here at KamerTunesBlog, and I’ve since become a Leonard Cohen fan, so I had a new-found appreciation for those songs when I revisited them over the last couple of weeks. I’ve also checked out some Cockburn and Sexsmith albums in the intervening years and that allowed me to embrace these songs with a renewed enthusiasm. The only one of these songwriters I’m unfamiliar with is Jane Siberry (whom she already covered on Drag), and the more I hear of her songs the more I’m convinced that I need to explore her music. Overall this album is very pleasant and her voice is typically warm & inviting, so even though none of these recordings is likely to overtake the original (especially Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is a strong version but has already been recorded in much more striking fashion by Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright and Cohen himself) it’s nice to spend some time listening to lang pay tribute to her heroes & contemporaries. There’s nothing essential here but a number of tracks are very good.
Watershed (2008) was her first album of original material in eight years. There are no surprises to be found, just 11 songs of lang doing what she does best. It’s not as
mellow as its predecessor but there are also none of the stylistic flourishes that she exhibited on Invincible Summer, making Watershed just “another k.d. lang album.” I realize that probably sounds like a criticism, but there’s nothing wrong with an artist returning to their comfort zone. When you possess a one-of-a-kind voice like k.d. lang your fans will be happy to hear you sing just about anything, even though this album isn’t going to win her any new devotees. I purchased the special edition mini box set version which includes three high-quality photo cards as well as a bonus CD with 4 live tracks. These extras are a nice touch but would be overkill for casual fans. Watershed may not be a classic but after a few listens a number of songs eventually made their mark, several of which would fit nicely on a career spanning anthology.
♪ “Sunday” – A midtempo jumpy bass line carries this song, with brushed snare & vibraphone adding a jazzy flavor and organ adding a ‘60s lounge vibe. I love the relaxed atmosphere and completely agree with the lyrics: “Sunday, Sunday, let no one…interfere.”
♪ “Jealous Dog” – This cute little tune is simply lang accompanying herself on piano & banjo. I wish she would do this type of simple, back-porch performance more often, and the sentiment in the lyrics (“Never be a jealous dog”) is something we should all aspire to.
Other Notable Tracks:
In 2006, after more than 20 years as a recording artist, her record label released the first k.d. lang compilation, Reintarnation. Of its 20 songs, 15 came from her first four “country” albums, with 3 from the Even Cowgirls Get The Blues soundtrack and 2 previously-unreleased tracks (one of which later showed up on the expanded version of her debut album). I never got a copy of that CD so I won’t be discussing it here, but I thought it was worth mentioning because it was followed a few years later by a compilation I did purchase, Recollection (2010), and the differences between the two are drastic. In fact, for anyone who doesn’t want to own all the individual albums, these two provide a perfect overview of her career up to that point. Unlike Reintarnation, this one focuses on her post-country, adult contemporary recordings, with only one song (the wonderful “Trail Of Broken Hearts”) repeated from that earlier CD. Each disc contains 11 tracks, with disc 1 essentially being a “best of” (9 tracks were either “Essential” or “Notable” in my posts on the original albums) and disc 2 containing soundtrack & compilation contributions, guest appearances on other artists’ recordings, tribute performances and other rarities. That disc is the reason I had to own Recollection and it makes for a very enjoyable (if musically disjointed) listening experience.
For her most recent album, Sing It Loud (2011), she partnered with a five-piece band called The Siss Boom Bang on a collection of 10 new songs, most of them written or co-written by multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia. It’s a little more stylistically diverse than her last few albums, with folk and alt-country elements added to the mix without being a return to her country roots. A few of the songs have excellent arrangements but lack memorable melodies, so although the record sounds really nice it isn’t a top-to-bottom success. In addition to the two artists I’ve already written about that she covered on Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, a third KamerTunesBlog artist pops up here; Talking Heads’ “Heaven” is a pleasant reimagining of the song but it lacks the quirky charm of the original. In spite of these minor complaints, at least half the songs continued to grow on me upon repeated listening over the past couple of weeks.
♪ “Sugar Buzz” – A midtempo, Jayhawks-esque song with twangy pedal steel and a cool reverbed snare sound. It’s great to hear her doing a bluesy Americana song which at times reminded me of Shelby Lynne’s mainstream breakthrough, I Am Shelby Lynne. Lang’s voice is softer at first but she belts out the lyrics more in the second half. I love the line, “The hardest fall there ever was, high so high like I was on some devil’s drug.”
♪ “Sing It Loud” – Midtempo, sparse & rootsy with peaceful vocals giving off the vibe that she’s relaxing in the tropics, as well as an occasional shift into a sweet falsetto. It’s a subdued gem with a great hook at, “Sing it loud, sing it sing it sing it loud, sing it…so everyone knows who you are.” Ironically, she’s not actually singing loud on this one.
Other Notable Tracks:
I’m sure k.d. lang will have plenty of music to share with us in the years ahead, but for now that wraps up her discography. I’ve really enjoyed focusing on her recording career for the last 1-1/2 months, since she has one of those unique voices that sounds great no matter what she’s singing. Her albums over the last 10-15 years haven’t been as strong as her earlier records but that’s hardly a criticism, as most artists would love for their best albums to be as good as lang’s lesser efforts. Going forward, I will likely spend more time with the period from 1987’s Angel With A Lariat through 2000’s Invincible Summer, with occasional visits to her later records, and I will continue to hope/expect that she will wow her fans once again with another incredible record that’s every bit as strong as her best work. Thanks to everyone who visited during this series. Perhaps I’ve inspired some of you to delve a little more deeply into her catalog. If so, I hope you have a “constant craving” to hear more.