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KD Lang Hymns of the 49th Parallel is mellow gold

Posted by Al Barger on July 28, 2005

In theory, the 2004 album by KD Lang Hymns of the 49th Parallel disappointed me somewhat. Yet I can't stop listening to it. You might say that she made merely a very good album when I was hoping for a major classic. Her Absolute Torch and Twang might have been the best country album of the 80s, so maybe I've just got the bar set too high.

The premise of this album is that she's covering songs from other Canadians. Specifically, that would be two songs apiece from Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Jane Siberry. Add one each from Ron Sexsmith, Bruce Cockburn, and one original.

Basically, she's a jazz singer now. None of these people are particularly jazz (give or take Joni Mitchell), but that somehow is the vibe. She's got a jazz chanteuse thing going on, and she certainly does it very well. She's at the top of her game as a vocal performer, gently and quietly adding meaning to songs without being showy or munching any scenery. Actually, she's tending here to be a little too gentle for my tastes. Picking up the tempo a bit would probably have made this a little better.

But that's a fairly minor point. She's one of the top female singers living, and I've not heard a better version of any of these songs. The careful restraint of the largely acoustic arrangements perfectly frames expert vocal performances. Just enough instruments to properly frame the song, but not a bit too much.

"Bird on a Wire" definitely rates as the top pick of this litter. She's got this cool little throbbing bass line mixed with single notes of organ, basic acoustic guitar chords and just a dash of piano that all combines to make the most distinctive arrangement on the album. It's also the best song of the batch. Then she adds some little bit of fairy dust of darkness in her performance, something subtle. She ends up with a recording that is different from but equal to the famous Johnny Cash American recording. Indeed, this might even be slightly better than the Johnny Cash version, if that's possible.

"A Case of You" is my other top pick from this collection, mostly on grounds that it's the other best song. There's more memorable and moving melody here to work her magic on.

My only objection to the album is in the song selection- but that's a fairly significant point. With all the songs written by all the Canadians, why some of these? These aren't even particularly the strongest picks of these songwriters. "Jericho" is just not a memorable Joni Mitchell song. There are so many better choices in her catalogue.

Same complaint with the Neil Young selections, though it becomes muted on repeated listenings. These are just not Neil Young's best songs. I own the After the Gold Rush album, and I still couldn't tell you how it goes.

Well okay, I can now. KD's impeccable performance really sells the song, and it'll be a KD song from now on as far as I'm concerned. She's obviously a great singer, and just as obviously Neil Young ain't. "Helpless" also picks up meaning and memorability with repeat listenings. Still, I'd really like to hear her take a swing at "Man Needs a Maid."

"Hallelujah" also becomes a significantly more compelling artifact with repeat viewings. For one thing, it has a little more dynamics than some of the other songs.

The other songs here, however, just aren't that memorable, and there's no fancy singing going to fix that. The Siberry songs are equally unmemorable. "One Day I Walk" has a nice arrangement. Too bad the song itself is so mediocre. What she saw in "Fallen" escapes me.

Robbie Robertson seems glaring here in his absence. Why no Robbie? Rather than those bland Siberry songs, imagine what KD could do with "Fallen Angel" or "Rocking Chair."

Still and all, she wrings everything out of these songs there is to be gotten. The whole thing sounds better and better with repeated listenings. The subtleties of the thing will creep up on you. If the idea of this album sounds good to you, definitely get in on it.



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