Frida Hyvonen - "Jesus was a Cross Maker" (Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill)
The adjectives relied upon for today’s indie rock are “lush” and “expansive”: think of the dense new Animal Collective LP, the lauded “textures” of Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors. So it is that in these times of Sufjan Stevens – of ambitious ensemble-rock with elliptically spiritual lyrical content – it’s not surprising that more than a few artists have been known to cover Judee Sill, nor that American Dust has seen fit to release this tribute album, Crayon Angel. Creating soundscapes was a real portion of Judee Sill’s genius: influenced heavily by devotional music ranging from Bach to gospel, she arranged her two records meticulously. On both 1971’s self-titled album and Heart Food from 1973, Sill overdubbed herself over and over. Heard now, years after her tragic death, the layers of her singing have an eerie, unapproachable quality as they rise over arrangements. It’s been almost five years since Sill’s albums were reissued to mass, rightful acclaim. Her songs seem destined to enter the repertoire alongside those of fellow Laurel Canyonites Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
Given the intricacy of her own production, her songs demand thoughtful, maybe even lavish reworkings. Good covers records are rare for a reason: meshing a bunch of different contributor’s own styles with songs deserving of tribute is not easy. The cover should be enjoyable, not over-reverential nor an over-the-top attempt to reinvent the song, but ought to comprehend and, in some way, confront the original.
Here, most artists go for small-scale interpretations of Sill’s song, to disappointing effect. Ron Sexsmith, Frida Hyvönen, Beth Orton, and the Bye Bye Blackbirds turn in unobjectionable lovely, but dutiful covers. Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear begins his version of “Waterfall” with a promising chorus of escalating falsetto vocals, but then returns to a modest, ukulele-plucked cover. Bill Callahan, attempting the previously unrecorded “For A Rainbow,” opts to play it with a basic rock-band-plus piano instrumentation, but stretches it out for eight dull minutes. The Vampire Weekend-esque rhythms of Princeton’s “Down Where the Valleys are Low” go terribly awry.
Final Fantasy’s cover of one of her most stunning songs, “The Donor,” at least tries really hard. It’s a really jarring effort: Owen Pallett plays staccato notes on a primitive keyboard, gradually bringing in choral vocals that sing the Latin phrase kyrie eleison. The chorus, in Sill’s original, has a visceral majesty: here, Pallett alludes to the song’s power while overlaying his own take. It sounds kind of terrible, but has truly admirable intentionality. Meg Baird does a more straightforward job that really gets it, though: she picks a horn ensemble to accompany her on “When the Bridegroom Comes.” It reminds a listener of Sill’s interest in gospel, but with a kind of New Orleans-funereal vibe. It sounds huge but intimate, thought-out without being over-thought. Baird’s choices make the song sound ageless, which was, perhaps, Sill’s aim when recording her own music.