Sunday, 3 January 2016

Judee Sill

Over the decades, much ink and electricity has been devoted to the question of "lost talents" in many spheres of endeavour, including music. One whose claim to this status has greater validity than most is the remarkable American singer-songwriter Judee Sill.

I had known the name Judee Sill for some years, largely as a by-product of my interest in the Californian music scene of the Seventies. However, it was only about four or five years ago that I discovered her compelling music, and the extraordinary and turbulent story of her life. The music instantly spoke to me, both because of its melodic inventiveness and its unusual and challenging themes. Her blend of influences was also untypical for musicians of her time.

Judee Sill was the first artist to be signed to Asylum Records, which was also the home for artists such as Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. She released two albums in the early Seventies, both of which displayed enormous promise and potential. However, various factors led to her disappearance from the scene, and she passed away in 1979, aged just 35.

Her music occasionally exhibits superficial similarities with her contemporaries in the singer-songwriter milieu, such as Browne and Mitchell, but such comparisons grossly over-simplify matters. The lyrics were unlike most of what was around, in their tendency to address spiritual and religious topics, and to employ these things as metaphors. The scope of  her philosophical interests and her musical eclecticism helped to render her work unique and intriguing, and made a pleasant change from the ubiquitous standard navel-gazing of the era.

Her musical legacy may be relatively small in terms of volume of "product" released, but it is far from meagre in its sweep and emotional vibrancy. Apart from the two original studio albums, an album of later demos and other unreleased material ("Dreams Come True...") surfaced in 2005, and a collection of her BBC performances is also out there. Such is the depth and immersive vigour of her work that this canon more than satisfies.

The debut record "Judee Sill" (1971) contains some impressive and likeable songs, and there is an obvious confidence in both her vocal performances and the arrangements, when considering that this is a first attempt. Standout tracks include "Crayon Angels", "The Archetypal Man", "The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown", "Jesus Was A Cross Maker", "Lady-O" (also recorded by The Turtles), "My Man On Love" and "Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos".

Occasionally hints of the "baroque" pop of The Beach Boys and others come to the fore, but these impulses are more likely attributable to her own varied musical background. Above all, this music is more dynamic and interesting than much of the earnest and stodgy "confessional" fare being produced by "troubadours" at that time.  In approach and ethos I also sense echoes of Laura Nyro's work, namely a self-sufficiency and a distinct and mature artistic vision. If anything, Judee's music is more "compact" and restrained than Laura's, but no less inspiring.

This first release is pleasing to the ear, the vocals are soothing and sometimes ethereal and the arrangements understated.  Strings appear here and there, and some horns are audible on "Enchanted Sky Machines".  By any standards, an assured, credible and enjoyable debut.

Judee Sill spread her wings somewhat on her sophomore offering, "Heart Food" (1973). The selection of songs is more diverse and experimental, and the "folk" element in the music has arguably decreased. Again, a horses-for-courses approach to instrumentation, with violin appearing on the country-tinged opener "There's A Rugged Road", and some pedal steel guitar here and there.

"The Kiss" is one of her best remembered compositions, although I personally prefer the live renditions which she performed at the BBC to this album version. Either way, it is a stirring and absorbing song, addressing weighty philosophical and mystical questions in a most poetic and diverting way.  Not a "pop song" as such, but "The Kiss" does contain some great "hooks".

Other notable songs on "Heart Food" are "Down Where The Valleys Are Low", with its infectious and sprightly melodies, and "Soldier Of The Heart", which possesses a confident and endearing vocal, and which swings noticeably.

"The Phoenix" is another quietly impressive number, its words seemingly examining a restless personal quest for contentment and equilibrium. The penultimate track, "The Donor" is unquestionably the most ambitious track on this record, clocking in at over eight minutes. A mood piece in some ways, and that word "baroque" must rear its head again. To me, it feels ascetic and measured rather than grandiose.

Despite the message being spread through the internet,and through the efforts of fans, my feeling is that Judee Sill has not quite reached the influence of certain other cult singer-songwriters, but it could still happen. Perhaps her music was too esoteric and ambitious to attain mainstream commercial success, but that in no way diminishes its value. She deserves to be recognized as an original and important talent, whose work still sounds fresh, vibrant and distinctive.

Listen to Judee Sill's music.  You'll be glad that you made the effort.

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