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Judee Sill - Judee Sill / Heart Food

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Artist: Judee Sill

Album: Judee Sill / Heart Food

Label: Water

Review date: Dec. 14, 2005

Earlier this year, I was stymied, unable to get any of my editors to accept a piece on long forgotten SoCal chanteuse Judee Sill. Sill had been resurrected via a MOJO article and a stunning set of songs shelved before her suicide/overdose in 1979 and subsequently finished up in the studio by Jim O'Rourke some three decades on and released with the triptych title of Dreams Come True: hi - i love you right heartily here - new songs. It's not that they weren't into her music; rather, they were too into it. Mesmerized by her sound, each editor felt inspired to take the piece upon themselves, in their noble attempt to explain Judee Sill's musical magic.

Yes, magic. It’s a fatuous word to conjure so as to describe her music, but how else to label what only on the surface seems to be the most placid and narcotically-pleasant of that particular clutch of female singer-songwriters? Even my manager, cantankerous and hardheaded though he is in his tastes (most often toward my musical selections), has fallen under her spell, her songs turning up in his mixes now. While it helps to already be partial to the more successful unit-shifters of the lot, be it Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Melanie, or Laura Nyro, liking the “Laurel Canyon” sound isn’t necessary to unlocking Sill’s music. Luckily, the two studio albums that Judee Sill completed in her short lifetime have returned to us, no longer as Japanese imports or long-gone Internet only editions, and the music is more than enough explanation, more than any explanation can be.

Judee Sill’s self-titled debut still floors me some thousand listens in; almost as often as it saves me, it slays me. Foolish as it may sound, her words serve as affirmation, charging the air whenever it plays. Her face occluded on the cover, her cross is revealed, and as she told Rolling Stone, “I began to want to entice the listener to open his heart.”

Funny enough, only recently in these ears has her classical influence come to the fore. Whereas I previously loped along with the pedal-steel swoons of “Ridge Rider,” the mouth harp and clopping percussion, that strange meld of archetypal cowboy imagery to post-acid Christianity, and just chalked up that effervescent, dusted back-up singing to just being prevalent on the era’s sessions, now I only hear Mahler, Beethoven, Bach’s courantes and chorales in their arranging; a ’70s sound from a previous epoch. Or as XTC’s Andy Partridge puts it, Sill configured “the sexual mathematics of Johann Sebastian’s palladian perfection…into the most rapturously complete melodies.”

Trying to figure out a way to describe her voice once, I thought it hewed closer to Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” than Joni Mitchell. It’s deceptive, ribbon-like in that it can appear flat while actually being deep, without a trace of vibrato, delivered in a honeyed drawl. Now, Judee just sounds timeless, angelic despite the juevie junkie backstory that dispels such a glossing.

That celestial effect becomes explicit in the majestic, choral cry of “Kyrie Eleison,” the elegiac masterpiece arising amid Heart Food’s finale, “The Donor.” While her debut had arrangements by her ex-husband Bob Harris and Stephen Stills (who produced her would-be single “Jesus Was a Crossmaker”), Sill opted to painstakingly arrange everything herself (a picture of her in pigtails conducting the strings can be seen in the booklet), resulting in a hard-wrought and arduous process to see the album through. As meticulously inlaid is the imagery itself, belying the plain definitive articles that make up most of the titles, be it “The Pearl,” “The Phoenix,” or “The Vigilante”; “The Kiss” is infused with all the rapture and heartbreaking swoon that its very act suggests. Whether it’s a kiss between earthly lovers or an encounter with the divine, Sill straddles the divide so that the words speak of what is above and below equally.

Judee Sill’s music takes its rightful place among any great alchemical work of art, be it the 'songs' of William Blake or Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Whether you hear the vocal arrangements of “Down Where the Valleys Are Low” as doo-wop ode or as invocation of the beloved, both are correct. Jesus is both a dastardly ex-beau and a beatified house carpenter. Entranced by the surface or truly understanding its mystic depths and esoteric iconography (either Rosicrucian, Gnostic, or Theosophic in base), Sill’s slim oeuvre works in heaven as on earth, for the listener such as myself who has listened innumerable times or the initiate such as yourself. Or as Judee incanted amid the orchestral swirls of “Abracadabra”: “Here’s the key to the Kingdom. See with the eyes that be behind yours.”

By Tad Abney

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