The Upshot: Late songstress gets a welcome reintroduction via deluxe vinyl reissues of her two studio albums plus a new collection of live and rare material.
BY FRED MILLS
As is often the case with artists who have passed on, legacy begets legend. And while 1970s songstress Judee Sill’s impact during her short life was minimal before her death, at 35, of a drug overdose—she was probably better known for being the first signing to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and for having Graham Nash produce her single ”.Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” than for any measurable commercial inroads—she would go on to inspire subsequent generations of singer-songwriters. A trifecta of new archival releases amply demonstrates why her reputation as an immaculate, gifted songstress has steadily grown over the years.
In 2004, 4 Men With Beards reissued on vinyl both her eponymous debut (1971) and Heart Food (1973), while 2003 and 2005 brought remastered CDs on Rhino Handmade and the Water Music label, respectively. Now comes archival specialist Intervention, which has recently worked wonders with audiophile reissues of Stealers Wheel, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Everclear, and Joe Jackson, with its own vinyl take on the two records. The results are revelatory. Intervention was granted access to the original analog masters so that Grammy-winning mastering engineer Kevin Gray, of Cohearent Audio, could work his all-analog magic. They then pressed each album on two 180-gram, 45rpm discs, and printed the original artwork on Stoughton “tip-on” gatefold sleeves.
The new Judee Sill is richly illustrative of both artist and artifact, if a bit of a period piece. It’s reminiscent in places of early Joni Mitchell, particularly in ”Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” a slice of mid-tempo piano pop subtly lined with chamber strings; the straightforward folk of “Crayon Angels,” with its oboe melody; and another of several evocations of Jesus, the strummy “My Man on Love.” Elsewhere are some more fleshed-out compositions, orchestrations courtesy Don Bagley and Bob Harris; it’s in lush numbers such as “The Archetypal Man” that Gray’s fresh mastering is showcased, revealing a surround-sound depth to the tune’s almost Bach-like arrangement that I don’t hear on the 2005 CD.
For several reasons, Heart Food is the better album. It clearly benefits from Sill’s presumably being more comfortable in the studio two years on, and boasts an impressive roster of 25 “name” musicians, among them keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Doug Dillard, pedal-steel legend Buddy Emmons, bassist Chris Etheridge, and drummer Jim Gordon. And the complexity of Sill’s compositions has taken a quantum leap. For this album she also wrote the orchestrations, allowing for both a diversity of scope and an internal cohesion that suggested that she was going for more than simply getting a collection of disparate songs down on tape. Heart Food glows from the outset, its highlights including the sweet, country-tinged (fiddle and steel), lyrically evocative “There’s a Rugged Road,” in which Sill indulges her familiar passion for Christian themes; the delightfully lush “The Kiss,” with an arrangement worthy of Brian Wilson; and the nine-minute piano epic ”The Donor,” which is suite-like in structure, breathtaking, like CSN&Y singing gospel.
Gray’s remastering, too, will take your breath away. One example: Listening to ”The Donor” is like sitting in a cathedral, bathing in the enveloping voices of a choir, each piano note’s attack and decay as palpable as if you were seated on the bench beside the pianist. Ultimately, Heart Food is a timeless and deeply nourishing musical feast.
Songs of Rapture and Redemption: Rarities & Live arrives courtesy Run Out Groove, whose specialty is deluxe vinyl reissues (check my review of the Dream Syndicate’ The Complete Live at Raji’s 2LP set, which was released last year) and, in some cases, unique titles such as this one. Sides A and B are made up of live material recorded in Boston in ’71, and the seven tracks originally surfaced as bonus material on the 2003 Rhino Handmade Judee Sill; sides C and D are demos and outtakes originally included as bonus material from the two Sill CDs on Handmade. So while the material itself is not unreleased, this marks the first time it’s ever appeared on vinyl, and Run Out Groove has gone the extra mile by pressing the two LPs on swirly magenta vinyl (180-gram, natch) and housing them in a glossy-textured Stoughton sleeve—each set is individually numbered.
The live tracks are delightful, a beautifully recorded document of Sill in her to-brief prime, just the songwriter and her guitar plus, on the seven-minute “As Enchanted Sky Machines,” piano. The track “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” is one obvious standout, the Judee Sill number nearly aglow with passion. Among the demos, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” is a fascinating early glimpse as a song that would go on to be, arguably, the artist’s most famous song. Equally fascinating: reading the liner notes, which are a transcribed conversation between the album’s co-producer, Pat Thomas, and the late Sill’s best friend and collaborator, Tommy Peltier, in which Peltier offers memories of the singer and observations about each track.
All in all, a must-own for any fan of Judee Sill even if they already own the Handmade CDs.
DOWNLOAD: Judee Sill & Heart Food: ”Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” “The Archetypal Man,” “There’s a Rugged Road,” “The Donor”
Songs of Rapture and Redemption: “Lady-O” and “The Lamb Ran Away with the Cross” (both live), “The Desperado” (outtake), “The Pearl” (demo)