I know that, to many, this is a classic record. People tend to talk about it with reverence, and fair enough. It’s damn good. But it ain’t the original Leonard.
Oh, I know, of course it’s not. But therein lies my issue with this record.
I’m a guy who loves cover tunes, and generally I appreciate an artist’s take on someone else’s music. But to me, Leonard Cohen’s original versions are the definitive versions, and I always find that any cover of his work misses the level of his passion and searching, his longing and hypnotic power. In recognizing the absolute strength of his imagery, they miss the humble humour of the originals.
Feel free to disagree with me. After all, I’m the guy who thinks that Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah is completely overwrought and misses the point, too, and we all know how much lip service gets paid to that track…
Anyway, Jennifer Warnes and crew still turn in a great record here, carried largely by her clear voice and the limitless strengths of the original compositions. To me, the faster tracks sound like some movie soundtrack from 1985. Her First We Take Manhattan could easily be from Flashdance, and no amount of Stevie Ray Vaughan can save it. Her Bird On A Wire is the same, despite the appearance of Robben Ford. No matter, they are what they are.
She’s at her best on the slower tracks, on the title song and Joan Of Arc (the one track featuring the Master himself) and Came So Far For Beauty, and even those have that same sound as the slow dance tracks from some highly literate equivalent to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just how it sounds to me.
Now, if you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh, I’ll be up front and admit that it’s probably because I’ll never let Warnes live down that one vocal ‘colour’ moment (the one that sounds like someone surprised her with a kick to the crotch) that is a cringe-inducing misstep on the otherwise absolute masterpiece that is the original Hallelujah. Anyway. I suppose you might consider that a small thing, in the scheme of things. You’re probably right, but then maybe you’ve never really had that song speak to you yet, either.
That aside, Famous Blue Raincoat holds together fairly well as a whole, as a complete snapshot of one person’s impressions on another’s brilliance, of a student looking up at her teacher with reverence. The re-mastering here brings the tracks to a clear new high, and the extra tracks are a nice addition that make it worthwhile for fans to re-purchase this set. I especially recommend Night Comes On and If It Be Your Will.
Cohen fans tend to embrace Warnes simply because the man himself loves her work and had a long working association with her. He’s even included a drawing here, called Jenny Sings Lenny, in which is sketched a torch being passed hand to hand. Now, I think that that is way, way too much, frankly, and has probably enlarged her ego to no good end. But in this way we know that she has the stamp of approval, and so be it.
Oh, there’s no denying that she can really, really sing. Her tribute to the songs of the Master, found here, are very, very good. But I would still go to the originals first, long before I chose this one from the pile.
01 First We Take Manhattan
02 Bird On A Wire
03 Famous Blue Raincoat
04 Joan Of Arc
05 Ain’t No Cure For Love
06 Coming Back To You
07 Song Of Bernadette
08 A Singer Must Die
09 Came So Far For Beauty
Previously Unreleased Extra Tracks:
10 Night Comes On
11 Ballad Of The Runaway Horse
12 If It Be Your Will
13 Joan Of Arc (live in concert)