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Rhino Hi-Five - Judee Sill - EP

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Album Review

Judee Sill's first Asylum album — in fact, the first album recorded for the label in 1971 — is, like its companion, 1973's Heart Food, an album of mythic proportions. Given that Ms. Sill died in 1979 at the age of 35 of a drug overdose, her work has been shrouded in mystery and apocrypha. Rhino Handmade has issued limited editions of both recordings; they're available for the first time on CD, and both are brimming over with bonus material (on Judee Sill [Expanded], demos and live tracks make up almost another album's worth of material), handsome packages with oodles of photos, complete session details, and a pair of brilliant essays by journalist Michele Kort, Laura Nyro's biographer.

Ms. Sill's sound is the epitome of Laurel Canyon's easy, groove conscious folk rock, but it would be a horrendous mistake to leave it there. Ms. Sill explored multiple avenues to get her songs recorded as she heard them. She wrote string and horn charts right out of the Bach manual for Baroque, she layered a warm nylon string guitar over everything, and employed pedal steel, gospel music, and straight rock structures in her songs. She also wrote lyrics and melodies that, once they were laid down, were and still are profound beyond the pale.

For this album Ms. Sill re-recorded the two minor hits she wrote for the Turtles and the Hollies, "Lady-O," and "Jesus Was a Cross Maker," respectively. Her own versions are less sweet, but more lush. They don't feel ironic, but more like statements of life and death. Indeed, in "Jesus Was a Cross Maker," Sill talks of Christ and the Devil as different sides of the same coin, turning her desire for one inside out to have it mirror her desire for the other. With a gospel choir and a full string section falling across an upright piano, when she sings of darkness and light in her plaintive croon, there is no opinion or perspective: this is the truth.

Likewise, in "Ridge Rider," Sill speaks of a stranger who may be her mythical self, or may be God: "He rides the ridge between dark and light/Without partners or friends/He's courageous enough to be scared/But humble enough to win...Since the great fall he's been ridin' hard/ Thinkin' bondage is sin/Hopin' someday the path'll turn gold/And the weight'll turn to wind." Pedal steel guitars, French horns, and a clip-clop rhythm carry this track forward; it is graced by the lonely whine of a harmonica at its nadir. In the grain of Sill's voice is the acceptance of a balance that can never be settled, of a rest that will never be earned, only hoped for. The original 11 tracks all highlight a redemption that is not only desired, it is imperative. Whether from God, amorous love, or self-reliance, redemption for an all-consuming darkness is the only alternative to being swallowed whole.

What's devastatingly seductive about these tracks is that there is no despair in the voice of the singer's confessional narratives; they're articulated through a faith that simply cannot fail or be misplaced. Each song is a brick in a landing strip for an awkward, determined angel to land. Filled with its multi-textured arrangements, and lavish orchestrations, "Lopin' Along Through the Cosmos" features a funky L.A. horn section on top of everything else, and still it's not a mess. Judee Sill [Expanded], Rovi


Born: 07 October 1944 in Oakland, CA

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '70s

A singer/songwriter with deeply religious overtones and a penchant for the occult, Judee Sill is one of rock's more interesting and lesser-known stories. The daughter of old Hollywood money, Sill's father died when she was just a child, and her brother died in a car crash soon after, leading to a bleak outlook on life that she expressed in an arty, disaffected attitude. She disliked her stepfather and condemned her mother for remarrying; as a quiet form of vengeance, Sill set out to travel America...
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