There is a prevalent attitude towards popular music that places the artistry of the singer-songwriter above that of the singer who performs other people’s songs. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon. I don’t think that anyone expected Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra or Dinah Shore to write their own songs, or thought any the less of them as performing artists. There exists nonetheless a kind of snobbery that insists that the singer-songwriter is somehow worthier of serious consideration.
One should guard against adopting such an attitude, for there are so many pleasures to be had from the work of inventive interpretive singers, not the least of which is the well-though-out album which is, in effect, a kind of thoughtfully assembled song recital. I’d like to explore two such albums which mean a great deal to me.
In 1966 Judy Collins released In My Life, which assembled songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Richard Fariña along with the Lennon-McCartney title track, Jacques Brel’s La Colombe and Liverpool Lullaby, written by the remarkable Stan Kelly, who has balanced his songwriting and performing career with his day-job as a highly distinguished computer science pioneer. Added to this are Kurt Weill’s chilling Pirate Jenny and Judy Collins’s own condensation of the musical numbers from the English language version of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. This Marat/Sade (to adopt its highly welcome shorthand appellation) is both a whistle-stop history of the French Revolution and a cynical political parable. And to round things off there are also numbers by Randy Newman and Donovan.
To realise this lovingly eccentric recital-programme, Judy worked closely with the arranger Joshua Rifkin (Rifkin was so much more than an arranger, and demands a post of his very own, which I have asked a friend to provide – watch this space) and they created a seductive sound world with Judy’s cool clear contralto voice at its centre. Judy and Josh do not put a foot wrong, from the quizzical woodwinds that begin the album’s opener – Dylan’s Tom Thumb’s Blues – through the melancholy string ensemble on Newman’s I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (When Collins negotiates the heart-rending intervals in the two bar phrase “human kindness is overflowing” we know we are in the hands of a truly great singer). Of particular note is the grim sound world created for Leonard Cohen’s Dress Rehearsal Rag. A relentlessly repeated, mocking piano figure, with a prominent, sinister, augmented fourth ringing through accompanies Judy’s portrayal of a would-be suicide addressing the reflection in his shaving mirror. Soon, French horns are introduced to darken the texture further. Then, in a central section, the nagging piano suddenly drops away, and a chiming harp and airy woodwind arabesques evoke memories of a lost love and a pastoral idyll (“Once there was a path / and a girl with chestnut hair”). The effect is breathtaking. There’s a jolt when the pounding piano returns, the woodwinds arabesques now taking on a keening quality (“That’s a hard one to remember / it makes you clench your fist / and the veins stand out like highways / on your wrist”). The harp now joins in, chattering hysterically as the song reaches its climax. It’s certainly a welcome change when this leads into the final track – a beautifully placid and affectionate take on the title track, with gentle acoustic guitar backing.
The sheer variety of this album, from the skittish, hallucinogenic waltz of Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street to the creepy drama of Pirate Jenny, and the impeccable musicianship on display, make this a record that is just as satisfying as any self-penned concept album would be. Of course, Judy Collins went on to become an accomplished song-writer. On her next album, Wildflowers (also a collaboration with Joshua Rifkin), three of her own compositions rub shoulders with more Cohen and Brel, the first ever commercial recordings of Joni Mitchell songs and even a piece by the 14th Century Florentine composter, Francesco Landini. Wonderful though Wildflowers is, though, it will be In My Life that I take to my desert island. I never tire of it.
Twenty-one years after the release of In My Life, another highly distinctive songstress collaborated with an inventive arranger on an album of songs drawn from a wide variety of sources. The parallels stop there though. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast in singers: Judy Collins, projecting with clarity and purity and the minimum of vibrato or other decorations; and Irish singer, Mary Coughlan, husky and intimate, now raunchy and insolent, now tender and fragile.
Coughlan’s second album, Under the Influence, sees her in partnership with the Dutch jazz musician, composer, arranger and producer, Erik Visser. And a fine piece of work it is, too. Visser himself has a composer credit on four of the 14 tracks. There are a couple of standards, Good Morning Heartache and Don’t Smoke in Bed as well as a Cole Porter number that has never quite become a standard, The Laziest Girl ( or The Laziest Gal in Town). Perhaps the most arresting song is Fifteen Only, Michael Dress’ setting of Frank Wedekind’s poem Ilse about teenage prostitution. Visser provides a restrained string quartet accompaniment for Coughlan’s unsentimental delivery. But there’s lots more to relish, such as My Land Is Too Green in which Coughlan expresses contempt for her homeland (“My land is bogged down in religious tradition / We nod our heads in humble submission”). Apart from the contribution of the string quartet as mentioned above (this group also makes a memorable appearance on Visser’s The Dice) and very skilful use of synthesizers, Mary’s accompaniment is, for the most part, by a fairly standard rock bank set-up. Fortunately, Coughlan and Visser didn’t settle for anonymous session musicians. Instead the members of the backing group have considerable personality and are each able to contribute something distinctive and characterful to the record. Conor Barry, for example, provides some really fine guitar work. But it is the saxophonist Richie Buckley who really shines. Buckley provides several really well thought-out solos as well as a great deal of decorative accompaniment. He is often jokey and wilful, but always helping to further the drama of the song he’s playing on, and always impressive.
Finally I really must say a few words about Davey Spillane, who is listed as an “additional musician” and who provides a fleet-fingered uilleann pipes solo at the end of Ride On. It’s a great moment, switching between jazzy note-bending and more “orthodox” celtic jigging. It’s just a shame that the producers fade it out so quickly. It would have been great to see what he and the other musicians could have got up to in an extended jam. But it wasn’t to be. But, this quibble aside, Under the Influence is a truly exceptional piece of work, and one to return to.