Friday, May 13, 2005

Kat's Korner Judy Collins' Portrait of an American Girl raises the stakes for everyone else in 2005

A little background. Last Friday night we went to one of those parties that start off great and end with people screaming at strangers and a couple of guys fist fighting. It was time to pile in the Jeep and get the hell out of there. We get back to my place and you got Maggie through the kitchen looking for something stronger than wine, Toni smoking while Dak Ho complained that his clothes already smelled like an ashtray, Sumner trying to get everyone to chill but even he was on edge. Me, I was pissed because the box of Shanthimalai incense was empty. How did I go through forty sticks in less than three days?

Sumner's had enough of attempting to be designated peacemaker and sits cross legged, in a corner, facing the wall. Toni and Dak Ho continue bickering and Maggie lets out a load woop from the kitchen before rushing in with a bottle of gin. Now that Maggie's set for the night, she's focusing on the negativity in the room. Her eyes are darting around as she pours herself a glass of gin and I'm not sure whether she was worried she wouldn't be able to finish the glass with the current mood of the room or whether she was once again donning the robes of the Happy Idiot but she starts ushering us to the futon or the bean bags or the chairs. We go along, going through the motions, even Sumner.

Maggie's looking like she's on the verge of accomplishing something. She runs over to a pile of discs by the stereo and starts rummaging.

"You haven't taken the plastic off this one," she says to me.

She's holding Judy Collins' latest, Portrait of an American Girl.

No, I haven't. Confession, I love Collins' voice. I think few ever achieve what she has. But last fall she released Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen which was the worst album of 2004. The worst album of Judy Collins.

I'm not a big fan of Cohen to begin with. Too much fire and brimstone, too much old testament for my taste. I can take Collins' doing "Suzanne," I can take Jeff Buckley doing "Grace." But an album full of Cohen songs isn't my idea of a good time. And that's before "Democracy" is even addressed. That's one of the four new songs on the collection. It's Cohen trying to be Bob Dylan and failing worse than any Dylan imitator ever has before. It's a long laundry list. Collins could have carried it off if she'd done it on guitar and brought in other voices for the chorus, turned it into a camp fire sing along. Instead, it's heavy on "programming" and light on inspiration. Did I mention that I hated Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen?

Maggie's ripping the plastic off and I'm begging her to be a friend, a buddy, a pal and please, please, please don't put that CD on. The night's been bad enough without having to hear another bad album from one of my heroes, okay?

Waving me away, Maggie suggests I dig through her purse for some incense. Her purse? It's this huge black thing that could double as luggage. It's always overstuffed, beyond filled to the brim. To the point that if you're ever hurrying down a sidewalk with Maggie, you have to remember not to break into a run, no matter how late you are. If you break into a run, and Maggie mimics you, stuff starts falling out of the purse. You have to stop and wait for her to pick it up so running only creates more delays. Better to walk quickly with Maggie, no matter how late you are.

But Dak Ho's happy to dig in because, as he reminds Maggie, she owes him still for those breakfast tacos the weekend prior.

"I'm pretty sure I paid you," Maggie's bluffing.

"Uh, I'm pretty sure you didn't," Dak Ho mocks.

He finds the incense and is lighting it just as Maggie finally gets the plastic off. A slow process, but an amazing one if you stop to think of how much alcohol she's already put away. I'm doing deep breathing with my eyes closed and trying to chill. I'm guessing Toni has just lit one cigarette off the remains of a previous one because Dak Ho's delivering the second hand smoke speech yet again.

And then these repeating piano chords come gently flowing out of the speakers. It's "Singing Lessons," a brave song that was included as a bonus disc in the brave book by Collins of the same name. I'm just focusing on her voice and her piano player and breathing is coming a little easier. Then the next track comes on, "That Song About the Midway." That's a Joni Mitchell song. It's a great song and I'm listening to it and wondering why Judy Collins has now recorded an album of Dylan songs and an album of Cohen songs but no album of Joni Mitchell songs? Imagine what she could do with "The Three Great Stimulants" or "Hejira?" Right now, she's nailing down "That Song About the Midway" and making it her own.

As the song continues, I'm brave enough to open my eyes. Maggie's claimed the bottle of gin as her own. Dak Ho's gotten five bucks out of Maggie's purse and is pocketing it. Sumner's sprawled out on the red bean bag looking the picture of relaxation. Toni waves her cigarette to catch my attention, almost singed Dak Ho's sweater in the process and don't think he didn't notice.

"This is really good," Toni says ignoring Dak Ho's glare.

And you know something? It is. As the album plays on, it's obvious it's one of the strongest albums Judy Collins has ever recorded. I'd rank it up there with Wildflowers and In My Life because it's that good.

It's as though every song's been carefully selected to fit the mood.

I'm gonna live my life
Like everyday is the last
Without a simple goodbye
It all goes by so fast
And now that you're gone
I can't cry hard enough
I can't cry hard enough
For you to hear me now.

Collins sings "I Can't Cry Hard Enough" (written by David Williams and Marvin Etzoni) without melodrama. She sings it so straightforward it just makes you gasp. Someone's crying. Thinking the booze has finally kicked in, I look over at Maggie but she's happily lost in another world bobbing her head to the rhythm of the song. I look over at Sumner who's lost in the song but not crying. Toni? No.

Wiping his eyes, Dak Ho swears his eyes teared up due to Toni's cigarettes but I don't think so.
The mood picks up a little when the Collins penned "You Can't Buy Love" comes on. By "Sally Go 'Round the Roses," Maggie's spinning around the room. Toni and Dak Ho join her. Me, I just sit back and listen.

Through the album, the portrait, of this woman who's seen her country, the world, in better times and mediates on the losses great and small. This is an amazing album. It might seem that the Collins voice needs no further praise at this late date. While it's true that her range and timbre have been noted, what strikes me is not just the beauty of the voice, but the feelings it expresses. Collins conveys a haunting quality with her delivery.

It's most obvious on Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portait," true, but it's there throughout. This is an adult woman with something on her mind -- an appreciation for the moments of joy ["Wedding Song (Song for Louis)"] because they are dots of bright color on an otherwise muted canvas. You're not required to know the story of her son Clark to enjoy "Checkmate," but if you do know the story, it makes the song, written by Collins, all the more amazing.

There you are in my dreams
Darling boy, I see you
In among all the faces of strangers

Heaven help us she knows
Heaven took you from me
Now I hear your sweet voice
Calling mother

Calling out to me
From another world
From another place
I would save you if I could

To hear the voice singing those words is to be struck by the level Collins has reached in her art.
Time and again, she provides (through her own songs or those written by others) the sort of level we'd like to expect from the (male) lions of her peer group. We've largely lowered our expectations of them and will settle for just an even album, something listenable.

In the midst of all this, Collins strides on to stage to offer something that goes beyond listenable (though it is that), that goes beyond hummable (though it is that as well). She offers this deeply textured portrait in song. When "How Can I Keep From Singing" went off, Sumner was already grabbing the remote to start the CD over. There has to be something in the popular music world to compare it to but I can't think of anything worthy. If you know are, and you know Monet, I'd compare it to the Sea at Fecamp. But in terms of music, I'm lost for a comparison.

I didn't expect this from Collins. I'd left the CD in its plastic wrap for well over a week. But I don't think we expect this sort of mastery from many artists. It's a benchmark that only a lover of art like Collins would even attempt. As much as I love her voice, I'm still amazed by what she's created. Utilizing the world around her and the richness of experience, she's created a true work of art and raised the stakes for her peer group and anyone else who attempts to release an album in 2005. Through repeated listens early into the morning, she kept the five of us spellbound. It's hard not to get goosebumps even now when I listen to the album.

I can't imagine anyone topping this but lets hope her accomplishment here is recognized and that it spurs others to try. I also can't believe I'm about to do this, before the year is even half way over, but short of anyone taking up her challenge and pulling it off, I don't think 2005 will offer a finer album -- Portrait of American Girl is that strong.