Music Reviews: Leonard Cohen Tribute, Roy Orbison, Joe Ely, Dean Torrence, the Claudettes, and Daphne Parker Powell
Various artists, Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen. Nobody performs Leonard Cohen’s songs as well as their creator, though artists ranging from Jeff Buckley to Judy Collins to Joe Cocker have recorded memorable covers over the years. You’ll hear more notable interpretations on this 12-track album, which features singers from diverse backgrounds and accompaniment by a guitarist, an alto saxophonist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer.
The set draws on material from throughout Cohen’s half-century career. From his 1967 debut LP, for example, come “Suzanne,” performed by Gregory Porter, and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” by Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza. Iggy Pop, meanwhile, serves up the title track from You Want It Darker, the album Leonard Cohen finished just weeks before his 2016 death, and Norah Jones offers “Steer Your Way” from the same LP. The program includes a few deep cuts but sticks mostly to the composer’s best-known numbers, such as the aforementioned “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire” (Bill Frisell), and “Hallelujah” (Sarah McLachlan).
Though some of these performances echo the originals too much to achieve producer Larry Klein’s goal of enabling “listeners to hear the poetry in a fresh and new way,” they’re all well done. And at least a few of the tracks do deliver on Klein’s mission. James Taylor’s terrific reading of “Coming Back to You” (from 1984’s Various Positions) is one such number. Others include Mavis Staples’s soulful take on “If It Be Your Will,” David Gray’s atmospheric “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” and Nathaniel Rateliff’s intimate “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Roy Orbison, King of Hearts. This 30th anniversary remastered edition of Roy Orbison’s posthumously released King of Hearts credits more than a dozen producers and draws on multiple sources, including demos and other unfinished material, some of which is augmented by backing tracks recorded after the singer’s 1988 death.
It’s not on par with Mystery Girl, the last album he finished, and it includes a couple of throwaways, such as the Jeff Lynne–produced “Heartbreak Radio,” a rocker that fails to fully showcase the singer’s remarkable vocal abilities. Still, the record is less of a hodge-podge than you might expect, and it includes tracks that no serious Orbison fan would want to be without, starting with a magnificent remake of his 1961 classic, “Crying,” that finds him sharing center stage with singer k.d. lang.
Joe Ely, Flatland Lullaby. Texas rock/Americana singer and songwriter Joe Ely began writing the tunes that appear on Flatland Lullaby about half a century ago and started recording them in 1984, the year after the birth of his daughter, Marie (whose photo adorns the CD’s cover). Envisioning the music simply as a lullaby for his child, Ely originally had no intention of releasing it to the public. But the songs have stayed in his head all these years and have continued to win plaudits from friends and family
So, this year, he added some finishing touches and released the music on CD. The program includes a preponderance of self-penned originals, such as the bouncy “Rock My Baby to Sleep” and the soothing “Over the Water,” as well as a handful of covers, among them Woody Guthrie’s “Car Car.”
You don’t need to be a kid—or even have one—to appreciate this well-sung and attractively arranged collection, which features contributions from the two artists who, with Ely, comprised, the 1970s band the Flatlanders: Butch Hancock, who co-wrote the title track, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who sings on the record.
Dean Torrence & Friends, The Teammates: Twenty Years of Making Music 1965–1985. This is the first record to tap the archives of Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean fame) since 2017’s Filet of Soul Redux. Not surprisingly, given that the material was recorded over 20 years and with assorted lineups, the album lacks cohesion. Moreover, it’s easy to see why some of it has stayed in the vault so long.
That said, fans of fifties and early-sixties music will find some amiable covers on the program, such as Torrence’s takes on the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” and Dion and the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love” and Danny Webb’s version of the Danleers’ doo-wop hit, “One Summer Night.” You’ll also find a version of Jan & Dean’s “Ride the Wild Surf” by Torrence and Flo & Eddie as well as a few lively collaborations between Torrence and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, including renditions of Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” and “Her Boyfriends Back,” a retitled version of the Angels’ hit.
The Claudettes, The Claudettes Go Out!. This is perhaps the strongest album to date from the Chicago-based Claudettes, whose previous efforts include such winners as Dance Scandal in the Gymnasium!, High Times in the Dark, and Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room.
What will grab you first are the jazz-influenced, silky vocals of Berit Ulseth, who sounds a bit redolent of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. But the Claudettes’ music on this CD—all written by consummate pianist Johnny Iguana, who co-founded the group with drummer Michael Caskey—is more adventurous and rewarding than anything the Sundays ever issued. Drawing on everything from punk and blues to pop and country, The Claudettes Go Out! delivers a richly textured, surprise-filled journey you’ll want to take again and again.
Daphne Parker Powell, The Starter Wife. There’s at least as much “blood on the tracks” here as on Bob Dylan’s album of that name. Singer/songwriter Daphne Parker Powell, who is based in Connecticut and New Orleans, went through a difficult divorce prior to putting together The Starter Wife and says the folk-based album is “my honest look at abandonment, codependency, and grief.”
That suggests you’re in for a depressing listen, as do such song titles as “Something Like Heartache,” “Ghosting,” and “Enough to Kill.” In fact, though, Powell’s lyrics exude not just pain and suffering but also resilience and determination. Moreover, her voice is powerful, and so are the elegant piano and classical-influenced string arrangements that accompany it here. Powell has used a harrowing experience to craft a thing of beauty.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.