Judee Sill – Live in London: The BBC Recordings, 1972-73 CD (Water)

In these intimate, revealing solo performances (just Judee with her piano or guitar) recorded over three sessions for a British audience, the mistress of L.A.’s Rosicrucian folk mysteries shares her exquisite, multi-layered compositions alongside memories of her musical influences and inspirations, and where the songs fit in her personal cosmography of romantic and spiritual loves. I imagine the disk will appeal to people who are already fans of her debut and “Heart Food,” but it’s strong enough to stand as the introduction it was to UK radio listeners. Sill describes how the Turtles found her living in a car with five other people and gave her a break when they recorded the lovely “Lady-O,” then turns in an effortless, stripped down take on that stunner. After hearing Sill talk about the UFO-as-savior symbolism of “Enchanted Sky Machines,” the ’50s R&B sources of “Down Where the Valleys Are Low” and how “The Donor” signifies a plea to god for a break she no longer feels she deserves, those songs will take on new layers of significance. This is a surprisingly warm and funny series of performances for so esoteric a songwriter, and well worth seeking out, though the multiple versions of five songs should be noted. Too, Michael Saltzman’s tender notes reveal the tragedies of Judee’s short life, from fears of madness, romantic obsession, drug abuse, injury and the ill-advised crack about David Geffen that scuttled her career, and explore the conflicts that pulled at the artist and finally pulled her down.

Anne Briggs

Dear Friends: Sorry to have been away so long. I'm back and am here to tell you about Anne Briggs. I don't care about the British Folk Revival, the phenomenon that gets mentioned in every Mojo issue about 20 times, the thing that you have to hear about every time a new Devendra Banhart (sp?) or Joanna Newson record comes out. But Anne Briggs, while a British folkie to be sure, is a something else altogether, somebody too original and sublime to be cast in that pot. She is a field hippy with a punk attitude, like a PJ Harvey singing ancient folk ballads. She prefers to sing a cappella, and has never been crazy about being recorded. She dislikes being photographed, and when caught on film she generally looks like she needs a bath and a hairbrush, and like she might be considering punching the photographer. Her 1971 album The Time Has Come was reissued this year, and this record is what I'm really writing about here. On this record Briggs allowed herself to be accompanied by some light guitar playing, and on the two instrumental tracks she plays some rare stringed instrument herself. This is a spellbinding album, and something that should be known as one of the great folk records of all time, instead of an album only a select few have heard. The guitar playing is similar to that of the acoustic work on Led Zeppelin III, and Anne's vocals are something that can't really be described – they just need to be heard. This is Nick Drake meets Judee Sill, it's acoustic Led Zeppelin with a female vocalist, it's timeless music performed by an extraordinary artist, it's Anne Briggs . . . and it's the reissue of the year, as far as I'm concerned. Also highly worthwhile is the Anne Briggs compilation, A Collection, which compiles much of her best a cappella material. The one I would skip is Sing a Song For You, on which Briggs is backed by the band Ragged Robin – just not the same caliber of material as is found on Time Has Come and A Collection.

Anne Briggs – “The Time Has Come” CD (Water)

Richard Thompson has said that “Beeswing,” his plaint of love for an untamable woman, is loosely based on Briggs, the elusive singer-songwriter from the British Midlands who drifted from public view not long after this 1971 release. The album’s a gentle suite of Celtic folk rounds, evoking country folk and stone-walled paths, ancient rites and carnival days. Briggs has an appealing yodel that she uses when trilling over wide-spaced notes, and a husky, longing vocal quality that suits her spare and haunting tunes. Despite being largely lovely, there are couple of clunkers that keep the album from reaching its full potential, but the good stuff is so good you can forgive ’em, and wish she’d stuck around and collaborated with some of the British folk-rock royals who adored her. Her version of “Beeswing,” for instance, would be astonishing.

Onethirtyeight – The Sister CD (Tuesdays Music)

Only 6 tracks long, but the simple sonic atmosphere of The Sister has that slow timeless feeling of a journey on a leaky paddleboat through a swamp or an amusement park ride, with a mumbling old man and his sad lil’ granddaughter as your underpaid tour guides. Is this a Funeral March record? I don’t think so. You’ll feel bad about the fate of the curious Squid Boy, and be glad to move on to another track until you realize it’s about Sssix Foot Albino Penguins! You’ll wonder if the Earl On Mars doesn’t really know he’s putting on a show, and then google Alexandra Elsbeth to find out how to bring her flowers! All the songs were written and performed by one guy named Dan who is very good at pulling out the dark somber moods from his guitars and keys. Highly recommended, even if you already are depressed.

Steve Noonan – S/T CD (Collectors Choice)

Medium Image

On his 1968 Elektra debut, Noonan comes off like a chilly Apollonian antidote to Tim Buckley’s gathering Dionysian storms. Both singers have precise tenor voices they apply to ambitious folk-influenced art songs and a sort of sadly regal air, though Buckley had significantly greater control over the recording process when he was at Elektra, and generated more of a funk. On “Back Alley Dream Street Song,” you can almost hear producer Paul Rothchild (who took his name off the finished work) goading the artist into a Buckley impression, but maybe this was just the local folk-rock style for Orange County kids in the late sixties. Noonan was a high school pal and songwriting partner of Jackson Browne, then in his Nico-backing phase. The album features several solo Browne compositions alongside Noonan’s collaborations with Greg Copeland, including his minor hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Buy For Me The Rain.” Though a slight effort, there are some very pretty moments.

Ruthann Friedman – Hurried Life: Lost Recordings 1965-1971 CD (Water)

Medium Image

Though best known for writing the Association’s infectious smash “Windy,” on these home demos Friedman is revealed not as a pop songwriter, but as a jazzy, abstract seeker of answers, love and vision. With her sad, husky voice and often convoluted imagery of nature and the human zoo, these rediscovered tracks evoke a tough yet sensitive hippie lady struggling to define herself, survive and occasionally triumph. The original demo of “Windy” swings nicely, “To Treat A Friend” haunts and “Southern Comfortable” is an intriguing period piece exploring American racism on the coasts and elsewhere. Don’t tune out before the closing tune, the fully orchestrated Tandyn Almer composition “Little Girl Lost & Found,” a psychedelic swirl of children’s book characters gone marvelously mad. The glossy booklet includes Friedman’s memories of each song and some evocative vintage snapshots.

Karen Dalton – “In My Own Time” CD (Light in the Attic)

Medium Image

I’ve heard and read Dalton’s name many times, typically described as an iconoclastic, influential and self-destructive folkie. I wasn’t prepared for the raw pain and power of her voice, something between an ancient black woman and the raunchy confidence of a street corner tough. On this 1971 album, midwived by bassist/producer Harvey Brooks at Bearsville, for the first and only time Dalton got the benefit of a sympathetic and suitably pushy collaborator who drew out her strengths as an interpreter and crafted big, sexy arrangements to cradle her big, sexy and terrible vulnerable voice. The stylistically diverse set veers from blues to folk to honky tonk country. It includes strong covers of two too-familiar songs (‘When A Man Loves A Woman,” “How Sweet It Is”), but if they weren’t already standards, Dalton’s gut-wrenching interpretations might have made them so. Kicking off with a beautiful take on Dino Valenti’s “Something On Your Mind,” with its late Velvet Underground arrangement and the hushed, cracked yearning of her voice, the album also soars on “Katie Cruel,” a traditional tale of an unwanted stranger utterly inhabited by the singer. Generous notes from Lenny Kaye, Nick Cave and Devendra Banhart further laud Dalton, and place her in context as a continual deep underground influence on several generations of interesting artists. Hers is a voice that won’t please everyone

Meic Stevens – Rain in the Leaves: The EPs, vol. 1 CD (Sunbeam)

Medium Image

The Welsh never neglected their homegrown Dylan, but the English-speaking pop world only recently discovered this powerful artist via Rhino Handmade’s reissue of “Outlander” (1970/2003). The 19 tracks on this comp span 1965-70, commencing with an early English-language 45 in a gentle, slightly primitive troubadour vein, then delving deep into Stevens’ more personal and intense recordings in his native tongue. I have only the vaguest notion what he’s singing about on tracks like “Yr Eryr a’r Golomen” and “Glaw yn y Dail,” but anyone conversant with the electric folk idiom will be in comfortable territory as these intensely emotional, sometimes psychedelic tunes unfold. The Welsh language has a nostalgic, eerie quality that makes Stevens’ unique work appealing despite the language barrier. Stay with it till the last few tracks, the seldom-heard and hard rocking Welsh recordings from the “Outlander” sessions. This set includes notes on each of the EPs, vintage sleeve art and a handwritten note from the artist.

Bonnie Dobson – self-titled CD (Rev-Ola)

Medium Image

Ten years before recording this 1969 orchestral pop disc in Toronto, east coast folkie Dobson wrote “Morning Dew” in a fit of nuclear angst, then watched as half the singers on the scene made it their own. She revisits her standard here, alongside several similarly moody originals and covers of “Get Together,” “Everybody’s Talkin'” and lesser-known offerings like arranger Ben McPeek’s Indian-tinged “Bird in Space.” Dobson has a seductive, jazzy quality that works best on the more subdued tunes like the sweet, Francophone “Pendant Que,” but which gets lost in shrillness whenever the strings get too hyperactive. A pleasant offering, if over-produced and less personal than a songwriter’s self-titled album should have been.

Record Review: Roger Rodier “Upon Velveatur” CD (Sunbeam)

Medium Image Rodier was a Montréal-based, Anglophone singer-songwriter whose twee yet slightly sinister style pulls the listener down into a rabbit hole of unexpected pop arrangements, into one of the most bipolar albums every made. This fragmented format is definitely not for everyone, but both styles are so well realized that it’s well worth the risk. Starting off hushed and whispery, the 1972 LP soon turns tough and anxious with the choir-backed anthem of betrayal “Am I Supposed to Let It By Again?” before slipping back into seductive intimacy in adoration of (shades of Jeff Mangum) Jesus Christ, and the heavy guitars and anguished, giddy shrieks of “While My Castle’s Burning.” Five strong bonus tracks flesh out Rodier’s versatility, which includes bubblegummy sunshine pop and sweetly spooky pop tunes in French. A very striking rediscovery, really excellent stuff.